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Invisible 'Chameleon' Tank Finally Revealed at World's Largest Weapons Fair

Invisible tanks seem far-fetched? Not anymore. At least not to adversaries using infrared to see.

Adaptiv -- an armor encasing that looks and feels as one imagines a dragon's scales to -- turns tanks into chameleons, allowing them to disappear into the environment behind them or to even look like a snow drift, trash can, crowd, or a soccer mom’s station wagon.

A product of BAE working alongside the Swedish Defence Material Administration, Adaptiv flaunts the very latest in camouflage technology -- and FoxNews.com was given an exclusive look at the technology at the biannual 2011 Defense and Security Equipment International (DESi) conference, the world's largest weapons show, where it's on display for the first time.  

Research began at the end of the nineties in Sweden to look at the proliferation of sensors on the battlefield and to consider how they could meet this threat and defeat the advantage those sensors could give the enemy. The team looked at the best thermals to date and reverse engineered them focusing on 500 meters.

Infrared, used by devices such as night-vision goggles or aircraft, essentially sees in hot and cold, unlike the human eye. Adaptiv uses the reliance on thermals in the battlefield against adversaries by manipulating these hot and cold readings to deceive the surveillant.

A system of more than 1,000 5.5-inch hexagonal tiles made of thermo-electric material gives the tank its chameleon-like capability, which can confuse (if not convince) an adversary into thinking it is looking at something it is not. Hesitation can give the warfighters a few more seconds -- which may be the difference on the battlefield.

The tiles or pixels can rapidly change temperature directed by thermal cameras that monitor and quickly project adjustments onto them to conform with the tank’s immediate environment.

In its blending mode, it matches the temperature of its surroundings melding into the background to avoid detection.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t kill it," said Hakan Karlsson, director of marketing communications at BAE Systems. Blending can even be achieved when the tank is moving, and initial trials suggest that blending is at its best at 300 to 400 meters.

The blogosphere has been a buzz about Adaptiv’s invisibility power, but arguably even cooler is its ability to shapeshift to the eyes of infrared. Disguising vehicles as tanks with paint or netting is nothing new, but Adaptiv does it in a far smarter way.

To transform into an entirely different object, Adaptiv draws from its pattern library organized by terrain and projects itself as something native to the immediate area. For example, if it enters an Artic environment it can conjure up a polar bear and project itself as one so sensors scanning for a tank see a harmless animal.

BAE Systems Adaptiv hex armor

Adaptiv is not limited by its pattern library however, and can even go chameleon on the spot shifting into something it has come across in its immediate terrain. For example, if it is entering an urban environment it can take a snapshot of an object on the street like a dumpster and then immediately change its appearance to be read as one to scanners.

Mounted on the tank is a large-ish ball with infrared cameras; press a button to capture an image and another to push that image out to the scales of the tank to go chameleon.

The armor also serves another very important purpose. Friendly fire is always a concern, and demarcating to your force as a friendly and not hostile is key. This signal needs to be discreet as well, so that you are not advertising to the enemy. 

Planes, for example, sometimes use a method of radiating their identity in all directions; Adaptiv is capable of signaling its identity to only the friendly side.

By projecting onto its skin a marker similar to a barcode, it can indicate it is a friendly in a way that is only readable to its force.

Balancing weight with protection is always a challenge. Heavy armor may seem to make soldiers safer but the additional weight can slow a vehicle down and reduce its agility -- thereby increasing possible risk.

The CV90 tank Adaptiv has on display was a smart choice. It carries the punch of a tank while weighing approximately half of the average tank. Adaptiv adds armor, can withstand ordnance and physical impact, consumes low power and is relatively light weight so it does not affect agility or movement. If a pixel is damaged, it can easily be removed and replaced.

The pixels can be scaled up or down so there is a range of other applications as well, from taking helicopters and warships stealth to rendering fixed installations invisible. Adaptiv could be a game changer.

What’s next for Adaptiv? I hear they are playing with other light frequencies such that invisibility to the naked eye is in the pipeline -- very cool indeed.

Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at wargames@foxnews.com.

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