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The Military Is Building Long-Range Facial Recognition That Works in the Dark

Polaris Sensor Technologies demonstrates processing thermal images. Image: USPTO/Polaris

TThe U.S. military is spending more than $4.5 million to develop facial recognition technology that reads the pattern of heat being emitted by faces in order to identify specific people. The technology would work in the dark and across long distances, according to contracts posted on a federal spending database.

Facial recognition is already employed by the military, which uses the technology to identify individuals on the battlefield. But existing facial recognition technology typically relies on images generated by standard cameras, such as those found in iPhone or CCTV networks.

Now, the military wants to develop a facial recognition system that analyzes infrared images to identify individuals. The Army Research Lab has previously publicized research in this area, but these contracts, which started at the end of September 2019 and run until 2021, indicate the technology is now being actively developed for use in the field.

“Sensors should be demonstrable in environments such as targets seen through automotive windshield glass, targets that are backlit, and targets that are obscured due to light weather (e.g., fog),” the Department of Defense indicated when requesting proposals.

Image: USPTO/ Polaris

The DoD is calling for the technology to be incorporated into a device that is small enough to be carried by an individual. The device should be able to operate from a distance of 10 to 500 meters and match individuals against a watchlist.

According to the details of the request, the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency is directly overseeing work on the technology. Last year, OneZero reported that the DFBA is responsible for the entirety of DoD’s facial recognition, fingerprint, and DNA analysis efforts. Will Graves, listed as the primary contact in the Army request for the technology, has represented DFBA at a number of industry conferences since 2018.

“Sensors should be demonstrable in environments such as targets seen through automotive windshield glass, targets that are backlit, and targets that are obscured due to light weather (e.g., fog).”

Two companies are working on this technology on behalf of the DFBA, Cyan Systems, Inc. and Polaris Sensor Technologies.

Polaris Sensor Technologies is based in Huntsville, Alabama, and sells technology that processes infrared images in order to unearth more detail. The company pitches its products for defense, surveillance, and industrial use. In 2018, the company partnered with ExxonMobil to research how infrared cameras could be used to detect oil spills. Polaris also has a U.S. patent specifically for infrared facial recognition that was granted in June 2019. The patent shows how a thermal image can be manipulated to drastically increase the level of detail.

Polaris Sensor Technologies’ sensors are small enough to be handheld. Image: Polaris

Cyan Systems also holds a U.S. patent on refining thermal images but is more secretive about its technology.

Infrared, long-range facial recognition has the potential to drastically increase the military’s ability to identify people who pass even within a quarter of a mile of military personnel. According to the DoD request, the new device will be used to identify those on a watch list rather than combing through the DFBA’s entire database.

Relatively little is known about how the military uses facial recognition, but continued investment in the technology suggests the military sees it as a priority.

“Fusion of an established identity and information we know about allows us to decide and act with greater focus, and if needed, lethality,” the DFBA’s director wrote in presentation notes last year.



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Dave Gershgorn

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.