Chameleon, the Army's high-tech camouflage...

Camouflage does not mean invisibility and yet this is what the military of all times aspire to in order to better surprise the enemy ... Taking their inspiration from the animal in the famous camouflage, the chameleon, Nexter's weapons industry researchers are developing a highly technical skin capable of reproducing the surrounding colours and textures, in real time, to escape the eye of increasingly invasive technologies. This project at the cutting edge of stealth technologies, whose "active skin" principle, composed of macro-pixels that automatically change colour according to their environment, has been patented by the DGA.
De Harry Potter to J'onn J'onzz, there are countless fictional characters who have nurtured the dream of invisibility. Yet, in the secrecy of their laboratories, it so happens that researchers are actually working on this quest ... In the meantime, today, the question arises as to how to make military vehicles more discreet on the field of operations. This is the whole purpose of the project Chameleon from the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA), associating the Nexter Group and IMT Atlantique within the Carnot Télécom & Société numérique framework (1).

Every 14th July, the parade on the Champs Elysées shows French military vehicles in forest colours. Covered in black, green and brown spots, they are thus equipped with a camouflage adapted to the wooded landscapes of Europe. Less frequently displayed on television are specific camouflages from other regions of the world. Leclerc tanks can also be dressed in ochre colours for desert areas, or grey for operations in urban areas. However, despite this palette of camouflage available, military vehicles are not always very discreet.
In a book published in 2014, Neither seen nor known, MIT historian Hanna Rose Shell traced a cultural genealogy of camouflage, whose developments are closely linked to the emergence of aerial photography during the First World War, when combat took on a higher profile and hiding from enemy eyes became a matter of life and death. She described the race between the growing sophistication of aerial reconnaissance and the techniques used to counter it. An article by Libération explains that today nothing has changed except that, more than ever with the arrival of drones, the proliferation of surveillance cameras, biometrics, facial recognition systems and widespread traceability, soldiers are even more keen to go unnoticed.
Especially since war zone environments differ from one part of the world to another, where the all-purpose colours of vehicles often lack effectiveness with their traditional camouflage, which is unable to adapt to the changing environments required by modern warfare, for example moving from rural to urban terrain.

"Within the same geographical area, there can be significant variations in terrain that make the effectiveness of camouflage variable." pointe Éric Petitpas, head of new protection technologies specialising in land defence systems within the Nexter Group.
It is not possible to adapt the colours to the mission of the day. Each change of paint requires the vehicle to be immobilised for several days. "It's a handicap to have a good reactivity when we want to send the vehicles in external operation" says Éric Petitpas.
To compensate for this lack of flexibility, Nexter has joined forces with several specialist companies and laboratories, including IMT Atlantique, to participate in the development of dynamic camouflage. The aim is to be able to equip vehicles with a technology capable of adapting to the environment in real time.
Named Chameleon, this project initiated by the Directorate-General for Armaments (DGA) "is a real scientific challenge" says Laurent Dupont, an optics researcher at IMT Atlantique (part of the Carnot Télécom & Société numérique). For scientists, the challenge lies first and foremost in understanding the problem. Stealth is based on perception by the enemy. It therefore depends on technical aspects (contrasts, colours, luminosity, spectral band, texture, etc.). "We need to combine several disciplines, from computer science to colorimetry, to understand what will make dynamic camouflage effective or not." continues the researcher.

Stealth Tiles

The approach adopted by scientists is based on the use of tiles attached to vehicles. A camera captures the environment, and an image analysis algorithm identifies colours and textures representative of the environment. A suitable pattern and colour palette is then displayed on the tiles wrapped around the vehicle to replicate the colours and texture of the environment. For example, if the vehicle is located in an urban environment, "the tiles will display gray, beige, pink, blue... with vertical textures that simulate buildings in the distance." illustrious Eric Petitpas.
To adapt the colour of the tiles, researchers use selective spectral reflectivity technology. Contrary to what one might imagine, it is not an image that is projected onto the tile as if it were a TV screen. "Color variations are based on the reflection of outside light, selecting certain wavelengths as one would select the colors of the rainbow to be displayed." explains Eric Petitpas." We can selectively choose which colors the tile will reflect, and which colors will be absorbed." says Laurent Dupont. The combination of the colours reflected at a point on the tile gives the colour perceived by an observer. This gives it an extraordinary camouflage, capable of deceiving both "normal" vision and thermal vision.
A prototype of the new "Chameleon" camouflage was presented at the 1er Defence Innovation Forum 2018
A demonstration of this technology was carried out at the Defence Innovation Forum 2018the first exhibition dedicated to new technologies for defence. A small 50 centimetre long robot was presented, covered with a chameleon tile skin. The consortium now wants to move on to a prototype at scale 1. As well as becoming more mature, the technology must also be adapted to all types of vehicles. "For the moment we're doing our development on a scaled down vehicle, then we'll move on to a 3 m² prototype, before moving on to a full-scale vehicle". says Eric Petitpas. The camouflage technology could thus be quickly adapted to other entities - such as infantrymen, for example - and, eventually, the system could be declined in the form of kits for different types of armour, or tarpaulins. The company plans to develop a large system in two or three years' time.
New questions are emerging as the technological prototypes prove their worth, opening up new prospects for deepening the partnership between Nexter and IMT Atlantique that began in 2012. Cameleon is indeed the second DGA upstream study programme in which IMT Atlantique participates. On the technical aspect, researchers must now ensure the scale-up to tiles capable of equipping full-size vehicles. A pilot production line for these tiles, supported by Nexter and the Brest-based SME E3S, has been launched to meet the programme's objectives. And the economic aspect should not be forgotten either. A tile covering will inevitably be more expensive than paint. However, the ability to adapt the camouflage to any type of environment is an important operational advantage without having to stop the vehicle to repaint it. So many new challenges must be met before stealthy vehicles are seen in the field... or rather no longer seen.
Hanna Rose Shell was therefore right when she recommended that this chameleonic impulse, this utopian desire for visual evanescence, would continue to motivate military research, with half-skin half-shield coatings on which to project the visual environment?

Source: I'MTech, February 2019
(1) Le Carnot Telecom & Digital Society (TSN) has been the research partner of companies to develop digital innovations since 2006. With the support of more than 1,700 researchers and 50 technology platforms, it offers cutting-edge research to respond to the complex technological issues arising from the digital, energy-ecological and industrial transformations of the French production fabric. Its themes are: the industry of the future, communicating networks and objects, the sustainable city, mobility, health and safety.
The components of the Carnot TSN are Télécom ParisTech, IMT Atlantique, Télécom SudParis, Institut Mines-Télécom Business School, Eurecom, Télécom Physique Strasbourg, Télécom Saint-Étienne, École Polytechnique (Lix and CMAP laboratories), Strate École de Design, Femto Engineering.

To go further :
- Cécile Coutin, Deceiving the enemyEditions Pierre de Taillac, 2015
- Xavier Boissel, Paris is a decoyInculte Publishing, 2017
- Thomas Seignon, War PaintingsLe Barbotin, 2013

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