An array of heat-conducting "pixels" on the side of this tank turns its menacing tank infrared signature to that of an innocuous car.

A Swedish company has stolen invisibility cloak technology from the Romulans and is using it to hide tanks on Earth battlefields.

Or maybe they’ve developed a shield that can both mask and generate heat in specific patterns to disguise tanks from detection by infrared sensors. The company, Sweden-based BAE Systems, unveiled their ADAPTIV camouflage system earlier this month at the Defense and Security Equipment International exhibition in London. The ADAPTIV technology uses a sheet of hexagonal “pixels” that covers the side of tanks. The cover blocks the heat given off by the tanks that normally allow them to be pinpointed by infrared sighting such as those found on night vision goggles, anti-tank missile launchers or strike planes. But because a peculiar black, heatless spot would still draw attention to an observant enemy eye, ADAPTIV goes a step further and generates its own camouflaging heat pattern. The pixels are 5.5 inches wide thermoelectrically-conducting material. BAE hasn’t revealed the technology, but the pixels, which number over a thousand for a typical tank, can be individually and rapidly heated to create the pattern of a car, a cow, a trashcan, a crowd of people, or a blinking VEGAS sign if you like. Appropriate shapes are selected from ADAPTIV’s library of terrain objects to fit the situation. If a tank is ploughing across the Arctic, for instance, the pixels will use their Wonder Twin powers to activate and take the form of a polar bear. And they get seriously SciFi with the infrared cameras on the opposite side of the tank. The cameras take a snapshot of the backdrop and then project that heat image across the ADAPTIV pixels on the other side. The ability to blend is dependent on distance, and BAE has found that 300 to 400 meters is the ideal distance. The end result is a disappearing tank. It’s pretty awesome to watch, and you can see it in the following company video.

In addition to keeping tanks hidden from infrared enemy eyes, the pixels can project patterns that friendly forces will recognize. Kind of like a barcode, the IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) system can be more discrete than those currently used by airplanes. Rather than projecting the IFF signal in all directions, as planes do, the tank can project its IFF signal in the direction of friendly forces. And the signal is powerful enough to be picked up beyond the visual range of approaching aircraft.

The ADAPTIV system is the latest in the sensory systems arms race. Still in the development stage, BAE hopes to have their battlefield cloaks operational in two years. Eventually tanks won’t be the only armed vehicles to hide from infrared sensors. BAE plans to fit helicopters and even warships with the ADAPTIV pixels. Disguising ships would require a lower level of resolution since they’ll be detected from much greater distances than ground vehicles. To adjust, pixels for ships will be made much larger.

The chameleon-like covering isn’t going to work perfectly every time. But even if enemy surveillance isn’t completely fooled – “That polar bear is standing way too still!” – a few extra moments afforded by hesitation could be the difference between life and death on the battlefield.

Cloaking devices that principally work the way ADAPTIV does have been tried in the past. But it took BAE engineers to get over this feasibility hurdle. “Earlier attempts at similar cloaking devices have hit problems because of cost, excessive power requirements or because they were insufficiently robust,” BAE project manager Peder Sjölund told the Telegraph. “Our panels can be made so strong that they provide useful armor protection and consume relatively low levels of electricity, especially when the vehicle is at rest in ‘stealth recce’ mode and generator output is low.”

So far tests have been performed on the Swedish CV90 tank. The CV90 is an ideal vehicle for the ADAPTIV covering: it’s got firepower and armor comparable to other tanks twice it’s weight. The sheet of ADAPTIV pixels will add some armor to the tank without rendering it too unwieldy for battlefield maneuvers.

Because infrared light is part of a spectrum that includes visible light, in principle, an ADAPTIV system could be used to make tanks and ships disappear, not through night vision goggles, but before our very own eyes. BAE is working on such a system. Instead of hot and cold, the pixels would be programmed to emit contrasting frequencies within the visible range of light.

Now you see it, now you don’t. I think it’s safe to say David Copperfield has been officially trumped.

I, for one, hope that when the ADAPTIV system goes operational in two years, opportunities to test the technology won’t be as readily available as they are today. That being said, outfitting tanks, helicopters, and ships with the ADAPTIV cloak could drastically change battlefield tactics. What technologies will engineers come up with tomorrow to unveil the vehicles from their techno-shrouds? If they’re not working on it now, they certainly will be soon.

[image credits: Fox News and BAE Systems]

image 1: Before and After
video: ADAPTIV

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.