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Near-Photon-Counting, High Dynamic Range, Passive Vision Detector Arrays



PROPOSALS ACCEPTED: Phase I and DP2. Please see the 16.2 DoD Program Solicitation and the DARPA 16.2 Direct to Phase II Instructions for DP2 requirements and proposal instructions.


The technology within this topic is restricted under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR), which controls the export and import of defense-related material and services. Offerors must disclose any proposed use of foreign nationals, their country of origin, and what tasks each would accomplish in the statement of work in accordance with section 5.4.c.(8) of the solicitation.

OBJECTIVE: Develop low-light passive imaging sensor technologies based on Linear-mode (Lm) and/or Geiger-mode (Gm) avalanche photodiode (APD) technologies.

DESCRIPTION: This effort will explore Lm and/or Gm APD techniques for a near-photon-counting near infrared (NIR) and/or short wave infrared (SWIR) sensor. The low-light imaging sensor should operate in bright sunlight with a large single-detector instantaneous field-of-view (IFOV), and also operate at night with very low ambient light, with sensitivity better than current night vision and low-light sensors by several orders of magnitude. DARPA is interested in developing a photon counting sensor detector array for passive imaging with incoherent illumination, operating in either the linear mode or Geiger mode. The minimum desired array size is 128x128 detectors, and the array technology should be capable of scaling up to 1028x1028 detectors. The array should be capable of passive light detection at frame rate > 30 Hz. The detectors should have an avalanche gain > 100, with an excess noise factor < 2. The sensor should be capable of storing 10 or more range returns per angle/angle pixel when in a receiver mode. Detector pitch should be 50 µm x 50 µm or smaller. The detectors should come as close as possible to detecting 1 photon with a high detection probability and a low false alarm rate. The detectors should have bandwidth > 500 MHz. The detector array should be capable of a FOV > 35 x 35 degrees in bright sunlight in the 800-1200 nm and/or 1500 -1600 nm bands, using passive direct detection with a narrow band filter that is > 3 nm in width. More angle/angle pixels will reduce the need to handle high background radiation in a particular detector. One of the goals of this effort is a passive imaging sensor with high dynamic range in the presence of high daylight background illumination. Another goal is a passive imaging sensor that also has high sensitivity at night with very low ambient flux. The sensor should be capable of incorporating a narrowband filter for operation with active laser illumination, and also a much broader wavelength filter for passive operation. In order to allow the possibility of coherent sensor operation with a strong local oscillator (LO), the sensor readout should be AC coupled or provide some other readout method so the detector dynamic range through narrowband filer or wideband filer operation is not significantly reduced when a strong LO is used. The sensor should be capable of integration into a compact and inexpensive imaging system with minimal required cooling/temperature control hardware.

PHASE I: Develop a detailed description of the detector array and photon counting imaging sensor system capable of operating in NIR or SWIR bands, and should result in a description of the low light imaging performance under extreme low light conditions, a description of the dynamic behavior and electrical properties of the sensor system and a preliminary evaluation of the expected size, weight, and power consumption of a prototype implementation. Phase 1 should address the ability of the proposed approach to operate in bright sunlight with only a moderately narrowband filter and a wide FOV, and should estimate how many photons at a single detector pixel would be required for 90% probability of detection (PD). A single pixel should generate false detections at rate < 1 per minute, and an object which aggregates > 60 pixels should generate a false object detection at rate < 1 per hour.

PHASE II: Demonstrate the Phase I concept via laboratory breadboard experiments. In Phase 2, a Phase 1 concept will be reduced to practice and performance validated in a laboratory setting. The experiments conducted should result in empirical and/or analytic knowledge that is used to design a preliminary prototype sensor. The laboratory brassboard must provide characterization data that demonstrate by analysis that the performance objectives can be met. The preliminary design should focus on a demonstration system which could be utilized in a field experiment and would directly meet the performance objectives.

PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: The Phase 3 effort should build the preliminary prototype sensor and conduct a field demonstration meeting the performance objective. A Phase 3 demonstration could be applied to a number of commercial applications, including for example: 1) An automobile day/night passive sensor for a driverless car, 2) a lidar sensor for measuring body motions in interactive computer games, and 3) compact day/night passive or active (i.e. lidar) surveillance systems for robotics and/or security. A commercially-focused Phase 3 effort could choose a viable commercial use and build a prototype system optimized for that application.

The Phase 3 effort for DOD application should result in development of an extremely sensitive and flexible integrated day and night capable 2D/3D vision system that will be able to operate in full day light and extreme low light conditions seamlessly. Additionally, the Phase 3 effort will fill the large need for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) sensors, and sensors for robots that require full daylight and extreme low light operations. The Phase 3 effort will be able to fabricate short range, inexpensive, relatively wide FOV sensors in large quantities. The Phase 3 effort should provide advanced passive and active low light imaging sensor options that also can be used with other 3D lidars, UAVs, and robots. Example tasks with military application for these systems may include day/night autonomous navigation, night time surveillance, terrain mapping, and improved night vision for vehicle operators and ground troops.


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KEYWORDS: Low Light Imaging Sensor, Low Light Receiver, Avalanche Photo Diode, APD, Linear mode APD, LMAPD

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