Convert any camcorder for use as a stealthy portable night vision system
Figure 0 - This camcorder uses a spy camera to see invisible infrared light
This camcorder uses a spy camera to see invisible infrared light

Camcorders a generally designed for well lit scenes, using the light to create a quality color image for recording. To ensure that the image is seen by the camera in a similar way to our eyes, only the portion of the light spectrum that is visible to our eyes is processed. Infrared light falls just below red on the light spectrum, making up the wavelengths from about 750 nanometers to about 1500 nanometers. This light cannot be seen by human eyes, but it can easily be seen by the CCD imaging system in the camera, allowing it to be used as a night vision viewer.

Unfortunately, you cannot simply add an infrared illuminator to your camcorder and use it to capture night vision video because the CCD imager contains a glass filter that blocks out most of the infrared light. The good news is that most camcorders allow a secondary video input to be recorded, and by feeding the output from a small black and white spy camera into this input, you can give your camcorder the ability to record night vision scenes that have been lit by some type of infrared illuminator.

This project uses an inexpensive camcorder and a $20 black and white spy cam along with one of the LED illuminators shown earlier to create a portable stealthy night vision camcorder.

Figure 1 - Any camcorder with an external video input will work for this project
Figure 1 – Any camcorder with an external video input will work for this project

Most video camcorders allow an external video source to be plugged in, essentially replacing the built in CCD imager with some other compatible video source. This video input will often have some custom manufactured input jack with a label of “external”, “line input”, or “AV input”. You will need the cable that came with the camcorder in order to make this project as each manufacturer will have its own special cable for that model of camera. On the older tape based camcorders like the one shown in Figure 1, there was a 1/8 jack “standard”, that used a 4 ring 1/8 inch male plug like the one shown in Figure 1, allowing any composite video source to be fed into the camera.

You will have to identify both the external video input and acquire the proper input cable in order to build this project, but if you kept all of the accessories from your camcorder, then that odd cable will probably be still sitting in the box, as it usually not used. Some manufacturers like to chisel the customer out of more money by making their own special connectors and then charging a ridiculous amount for the cable, so check your camcorder manual to make sure your camera supports video input and that you can acquire the necessary cables for a fair price.

Create a handheld infrared illumination system using a flashlight and common materials

Figure 0 - This project will explore several ways to convert visible light into infrared light
This project will explore several ways to convert visible light into infrared light

Although infrared LEDs are the most common source of invisible light for a night vision device, they are certainly not the only option available, nor are they always the best. Depending on your camera type and setup, you may need a hand held source of infrared light that can be rapidly moved around the scene, or possibly an infrared light source that differs in wavelength from the standard 800 nanometer to 950 nanometer wavelength of the standard infrared LEDs.

Infrared light falls just below red on the light spectrum, making up the wavelengths from about 750 nanometers to about 1500 nanometers. This light cannot be seen by human eyes, but it can easily be seen by most video cameras, making it useful as a covert lighting method in night vision systems. Some video cameras can even see part of the ultraviolet light spectrum from 200 nanometers to 400 nanometers. That will be covered here as well.

The goal will be to pass white light through various materials that will attempt to block out all of the visible light and only pass the light that is invisible to the human eyes, yet visible to most security cameras and spy cameras.

Figure 1 - Infrared pass filters can be made from many different materials
Figure 1 – Infrared pass filters can be made from many different materials

A filter that blocks out all light except for the small portion of the spectrum that falls between 800 nanometers and 1000 nanometers is called an infrared pass filter. This effect is exactly the same effect seen by placing a colored lens over your eyes to see the world in a different color tone. If you place a green piece of translucent plastic over your eyes, the world will look green because only the light from the 490 nanometer to 560 nanometer wavelength will reach your eyes.

An infrared filter will do the exact thing, but since you cannot see infrared light, the filter material will seem completely dark to your eyes. When you place an object made of translucent infrared material in front of a video camera, it will look completely clear, as if the camera has some special ability to see through a solid object.

This infrared pass filter effect can be exploited to create a very powerful infrared illuminator by passing white light through the filter to extract and send out only the infrared light that the video camera can see. The benefit to this approach over using infrared LEDs is that a very small and powerful illuminator can be made, as well as a very large and extremely bright illuminator.

The objects shown in Figure 1 all exhibit some infrared passing abilities, which will be explored using a small black and white security camera and some white light from an incandescent flashlight bulb.

 

LED Array Illuminator

A long range infrared illuminator can be made using many LEDs
There are times when the small infrared LED ring built into a security camera will not cover the range or field of view you require, so you will need to find another invisible light source. Some large infrared illuminators use powerful incandescent light sources that are passed through an infrared pass filter, causing only the infrared component of the light to come through the filter. These types of infrared illuminators create intense heat due to the fact that the white light source must be fully enclosed and burn the unwanted light energy off as radiated heat. Because of this intense heat, incandescent filtered illuminators cannot be used indoors and may not be suitable for many outdoor installations.

The good news is that LEDs can be used to create a very powerful infrared illumination system if you use enough of them. Ok, you need a lot of them, but these days they can be purchased for only pennies a piece if ordered in quantities of hundreds or more. The bad news is that you will need to do a lot of soldering, even on a small array of 16 by 16 LEDs, which will have more than 512 connection points. Of course, many circuit board houses offer proto service and you could have a very large LED array circuit board made for under $100 if you shop around. If you are patient and like to solder, then any size array can be made on some perforated circuit board, resulting in a very high power illumination system that will only cost you 1/10th of what a manufactured unit would cost.

Figure 1 - LEDs purchased in large quantities can often be found at bargain prices
Figure 1 – LEDs purchased in large quantities can often be found at bargain prices

Before you decide on making a huge array that will light up an entire city block, do a little research on bulk LED prices and power requirements because an array will become hungry on both counts. I built two version of the LED array – one using a hand wired perforated board having 13×19 LEDs and a much larger PCB version having 32×48 LEDs. So the smaller LED array has 247 LEDs and the larger array has a whopping 1526 LEDs! Make no mistake – it takes a good chunk of power to crank up 1526 LEDs to their maximum potential, and even at 10 cents per LED, that adds up to $154 just for the LEDs.

Start by calculating how much infrared radiation you will need in order to light your scene. Limitations will likely be the focal range of your camera since details are lost on most security cameras after about 50 feet. This distance is also about as far as an LED can reach, no matter how many you add to the array, so the equation then becomes how wide and how bright do you need the scene? A 20 foot by 20 foot interior room will shine like mid-day with an array of 16×16 LEDs at each corner of the room, but the massive array I built is almost too bright to be used indoors. If your camera will stay in a fixed position, then a single array is best, but for general room illumination, it is better to divide up your LEDs into two or more arrays for even lighting. Think of a 16×16 LED array to be about the same as a typical hand held flashlight for both output power and field of view. My 32×48 array acts more like a 500 watt halogen light source when placed in a small room.

There are several varieties of infrared LEDs, ranging in size, field of view, output power, and effective light color. The most commonly used infrared LEDs output 940 nanometer infrared light which is far beyond the human visual range, and fairly detectable by any non filtered video camera. There are also infrared LEDs available for the 800 to 900 nanometer range. These are even better for use in night vision applications, but there will be slightly detectable red glow as the human eye can faintly detect this band of light. If you have seen an outdoor night vision security camera after dark, then you are probably familiar with this dull red glow. The LEDs shown in Figure 1 are commonly available 940 nanometer types purchased in bulk from an Internet based supplier.

Figure 0 - An infrared illuminator can be pushed to the max using pulsed current
An infrared illuminator can be pushed to the max using pulsed current

Although there are certainly limitations to how much light (or infrared radiation) can be emitted by an LED, there are tricks that can be used to push them to their ultimate maximum limits. This project will demonstrate how a simple infrared illuminator can be “pushed” a little more in order to extend the useful range of a simple night vision system using a camcorder and a low lox monochrome camera. In order to build this project, you will need to have the datasheet handy for the LEDs you plan to use so that you can determine the amount of current the LED will withstand in pulsed mode operation.

Pulsed mode operation means that the LED will be turned on and off at a very fast rate using more current than it could withstand continuously. The purpose of doing this is to force the LED to output short bursts of much brighter light (or infrared radiation) than it normally would, and by keeping the pulse with duty cycle short, the LED will not overheat. Television remotes do this to create sharp intense bursts of modulated light to send out to the receiver, and many low voltage consumer devices do this with visible LEDs to make them appear brighter while at the same time conserving power. A pulsed visible LED may look 10 times brighter, yet consume only half the power in pulsed mode operation. Of course, there are limitations to pulsing LEDs, and you may find that using more LEDs or higher current LEDs to be more effective than using a pulse mode driver.

This project will explore the strengths and weaknesses of the pulsed mode operation of both visible LEDs and infrared LEDs, and compare both using a low lux monochrome spy camera connected to a camcorder and small infrared illuminator.

Figure 1 - This is a pulsed mode illuminator taken from an outdoor security camera

Figure 1 – This is a pulsed mode illuminator taken from an outdoor security camera

Most newer outdoor security cameras now include an infrared ring light illuminator to enhance their ability to see in the dark. Infrared light falls just below red on the light spectrum, making up the wavelengths from about 750 nanometers to about 1500 nanometers. This light cannot be seen by human eyes, but it can easily be seen by many video cameras, making it useful as a covert lighting method in night vision systems. A common example of infrared light is the medium for communication between your remote control and television set. The LED on the end of your remote sends out pulses of infrared light which is received by the infrared detector on the TV and demodulated back into data. Of course, you cannot see the pulses because they are out of our visual range, but any video camera that is not equipped with an infrared filter can see this light easily.

Figure 1 shows an infrared LED illuminator ring taken from a small outdoor security camera. There are 17 infrared LEDs arranged in a series parallel configuration around a small hole where the camera lens would be installed so that the light is spread evenly around the field of view. This is an older illuminator, and was also a pulse mode system, which is why there are semiconductors on the rear of the circuit board. An illuminator without a pulse mode driver will not have any semiconductors as it is wired directly to the DC power source, giving each LED its maximum voltage and current all of the time.

You may notice that the semiconductors on the back of the illuminator shown in Figure 1 are completely fried , which is one of the downfalls of having more circuitry – more points of failure. This circuit was either zapped by a nearby lightning surge, or simply gave it up after overheating, causing a massive failure in almost all of the transistors in the circuit. Luckily, the LEDs survived and found their way into my junk collection. I have a very extensive collection of infrared enabled security cameras, and the interesting thing is that almost all of the newer ones have better night vision capabilities and do not use pulsed mode LED drivers. Maybe the manufacturers decided that better LEDs made more sense than pushing lower quality LEDs to their ultimate maximum ratings?

“Hi, as this  is my first post, I will introduce myself.  I purchased Brad’s book 101 Spy Gadgets For the Evil genius two years ago, since then I have made several projects.  Here are some.”

Some of my spy gadgets.

 

 

“I’ve been looking with interest at your VGA guide, so firstly thanks for creating it :”  Read more and join the discussion:  VGA guide

Infrared LEDs are invisible to humans but visible to security cameras

Infrared light falls just below red on the light spectrum, making up the wavelengths from about 750 nanometers to about 1500 nanometers. This light cannot be seen by human eyes, but it can easily be seen by many video cameras, making it useful as a covert lighting method in night vision systems. A common example of infrared light is the medium for communication between your remote control and television set. The LED on the end of your remote sends out pulses of infrared light which is received by the infrared detector on the TV and demodulated back into data. Of course, you cannot see the pulses because they are out of our visual range, but any video camera that is not equipped with an infrared filter can see this light easily.

There are many good quality security cameras available on the market that include a low lux video camera in a weather proof housing along with an array of infrared LEDs for night vision applications. Of course, you may want to just make your own simple infrared illuminator for projects that you need to add night vision to. This can be done in a few hours with a few dollars worth of infrared LEDs. Black and white security cameras and small board cameras are particularly sensitive to infrared light. These ultra low lux cameras can usually be purchased for about $100 or less, especially from online sellers. Add 10 or more infrared LEDs, and you now have a night vision system that is better than those that were selling for thousands of dollars in the 1980s.

This project represents the most basic LED illuminator possible, and is nothing more than a series string of LEDs running from a DC power source or battery pack. You can build this infrared illuminator from a single LED and coin battery, or add as many LEDs as your power pack can handle. With 10 LEDs, you can easily light up a room for a video camera, and with 100 LEDs, you could light up your entire yard to make is seem like midday to a security camera. Our Night Vision Viewer projects also use infrared LEDs as an invisible light source. 

Read more: http://www.lucidscience.com/pro-simple%20infrared%20illuminator-1.aspx

Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/lucidscience#p/u/5/7rWtMXebXEA

This tiny spy robot can send audio and video and includes night vision

 

After building my two large video controlled robots (Oberon and Goober) as well as the small sized all terrain spy robot, I wanted to take the militarization process as far as I could using inexpensive components. A spy robot needs to have a rock solid video link that is good for at least 500 feet, crystal clear amplified sound pickup, silent motor operation and night vision, so that is a lot of stuff to pack into a small area. Also note that this project was built in 2004, when affordable miniature cameras and video transmitters were kind of a rare thing to find.

I decided to build this project when I finally found a source for an ultra tiny composite video camera with a low lux CCD element that would be good for night vision. I also had a tiny 250mw audio and video transmitter that was hacked from a security system into its absolute minimum size, so the project could finally come together. This version is just a simple proof of concept prototype and will eventually be made less than half the size and have the ability to survive a throw through a window into the target location for stealthy surveillance missions in a hostile environment. The final version will also have some onboard autonomous intelligence so once it is dropped or thrown into the target location it can quickly sneak into a dark hiding spot much like the way a fleeing insect.

Since I now had the small video camera and the tiny gearbox drive motors on order, I could experiment with some possible layouts and battery pack sizes using a computer CAD program. I originally planned to use very small lithium batteries, but it was found that the current draw from all of the subsystems made the video drop out when the motors were activated, so I decided to go with sub-AA sized rechargeable nickel batteries as these were commonly available for small RC aircraft use. The next version will use a custom made lithium ion battery pack similar to the ones used in cell phones for much smaller and extended run times, but for now the goal was cheap and simple.

I also intended to have a four wheel transmission system with possible a track drive, but in later experimentation it was found that only two wheels were needed as the little motors had more than enough power to just drag the back of the robot along. The final version will probably have a custom track drive though, as the two wheels would sometimes fail to pull the tiny robot over large carpet runners due to slipping easily on the smooth surfaces.

I originally made my own small video transmitter but it lacked audio and was very unstable as the robot moved around or when the batteries began to drain. This video transmitter is the output block of a small security camera reduced to its absolute minimal components, allowing it to send 900MHz audio and video back to a down converter. The small transmitter was very stable for several hundred feet, had very clear audio, and ran just fine from any DC power source from 6 volts to 12 volts. Having the video transmitter on a high frequency band will also help stop interference between it and the drive remote controller, which operates on the low 49MHz band.

Figure 2 – This is a tiny half inch square audio and video transmitter

It was very difficult to find a suitable micro video camera in 2004 for this project. The camera had to be black and white for use with the invisible infrared night vision LEDs, have a CCD imager rather than CMOS for clarity, and also output a standard NTSC composite signal rather than a serial bit stream. I eventually found this extremely small high resolution black and white composite camera and did a little hacking in order to remove the onboard power supply, which was 4x the size of the actual camera. This camera was perfect for this spybot now that it was reduces to only 1/4 inch square and able to run from 8 to 12 volts DC power.

Figure 3 – A micro sized NTSC composite video camera with low lux CCD

<< More on this and other DIY electronics projects: 
http://www.lucidscience.com/gal-showall.aspx
>>

Figure 0 - This simple to build spy includes night vision and payload delivery
This simple to build spy includes night vision and payload delivery

This small remote controlled spy robot can traverse practically any outdoor terrain, controlled via audio and video link from a portable base station. The spy robot also has an infrared LED array and a low lux camera for great night vision, allowing it to see in complete darkness for several hundred feet. Combined with a very high gain microphone and preamplifier, the small spy robot makes a great drone to send into areas that are too dangerous to occupy or when complete stealth is necessary. The spy robot can also carry small payloads and drop them under remote control by activating a solenoid.

The spy robot is built around a remote controlled toy 4×4 truck, utilizing the original drive electronics and transmitter to control the base. A powerful audio video transmitter is added so that the operator can control the spybot up to a mile away from a portable base station. Other features included on the spybot are: night vision LEDs, a panning camera head, high gain audio preamplifier, halogen light system, and a mechanical payload delivery system. Being small yet agile on hostile terrain, this spybot can sneak into restricted areas and just hide silently, sending back a clear audio and video signal even in complete darkness.

From LucidScience.com forum:

“Funny-ish story FWIW {regarding Ken Will’s “Helping Hands” gizmo}: A few years I ‘hacked’ a R/C servo for 360° rotation for use in a KAP {Kite Aerial Photography} rig I was building. I didn’t have any kind of support to ‘hold’ the servo while working on it, and I was having trouble focusing on it while doing the hacking.”

Read more: http://www.lucidscience.com/forum/tm.aspx?high&m=13&mpage=1#219