Bruce Hubler’s company flies airplanes over cropland in the Treasure Valley to apply fertilizer, fungicide and insecticide. But many crops in the area require bees to pollinate them. The bees buzz in the fields during daylight, so the pilots at Caldwell-based Valley Air hold off their aerial spraying until the bees go to bed.
A different Treasure Valley company, Boise’s Aviation Specialties Unlimited, started making Valley Air’s job a lot easier a few years ago.
A small aviation night-vision technology company, ASU sells night-vision goggles to buyers such as the military and law enforcement. It outfits helicopters and planes with night-vision systems and offers a week-long flight school where pilots learn to use night vision.
“We use the night vision to improve safety and reduce stress for the pilot and crews,” said Hubler, owner-operator of Valley Air LLC. Hubler knew ASU founder Mike Atwood from their time flying together in the National Guard.
Hubler said his pilots “only did what we minimum had to” before they had night vision. They would spend precious time scouting the fields before taking flight, noting the precise locations of wires and towers. Once they were in the air at night, they relied on under-wing lights to illuminate the fields.
It took 30 years for night-vision technology to be refined enough for agricultural use, Hubler said. But when ASU installed its system on his aircraft a few years ago, it “took the negative away from being out there at night.”
Since ASU — owned by Atwood and his wife, Chris — began in 1995, it has sold more than 6,000 night-vision goggle systems and outfitted more than 1,000 aircraft at prices ranging from $13,000 for the goggles to more than $100,000 for a full aviation night-vision system. The company said its annual sales exceed $20 million.
Now, ASU is selling to the public for the first time. Its latest invention? The Ecliptus, a night-vision-equipped GoPro camera.
$5,499Manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the Ecliptus
The GoPro is known for its high-definition imagery and video, but it isn’t great at filming in the dark. ASU’s goggles make it easy to see tiny details from a distance at midnight or in a cave, but they cannot record what they see.
“By blending those two technologies, you’ve suddenly taken the pluses of both systems,” said Jim Winkel, ASU’s president. Winkel is among the dozens who have joined ASU in the past few years, doubling its workforce to about 50 employees.
“Those who have responded so far with a ‘wow’ factor have been law enforcement, hunters and the military,” Winkel said.
ASU is weeks away from starting to manufacture the units, but it already has pre-orders. The U.S. Army bought 21, which will be shipped in June. The New York Police Department ordered two, to be delivered in May.
ASU will soon be manufacturing the Ecliptus at its offices along the southwest side of the Boise Airport.
The Ecliptus name was the winning entry in a naming contest, dreamed up by the wife of an ASU sales representative.
Anyone in the U.S. can order the Ecliptus from its website. The company sells directly to customers, though outdoor-recreation and hunting retailers may sell the Ecliptus eventually, Winkel said.
Winkel declined to say how much ASU has spent to develop the device but said it tops $100,000. The six or seven employees who were key in developing the camera over the past year and a half have more plans for it.
First, the company is looking at ways to take existing GoPro cameras and add night-vision capability, retrofitting them to do what the Ecliptus can.
It may add the ability to get a remote live feed of the GoPro’s footage.
And while the current Ecliptus uses standard green-tinted night vision, ASU wants to add thermal vision, which shows heat instead of light.
I think it’s neat that this is an Idaho product. ... One of those niche products that’s got a lot of legs on it.
Jim Winkel, president, Aviation Specialties Unlimited
ASU is one of the first companies to take part in GoPro’s new software-developer program, which uses third parties to expand uses for the strap-on video camera. GoPro and ASU unveiled the Ecliptus at a media event last week in San Francisco, alongside new inventions from FisherPrice and BMW.
Hubler has filmed marketing and demonstration videos of his night flights over farms. He thinks the videographer “mounted a [night-vision] goggle on the GoPro.” The Ecliptus will make such jobs easier, with a “more sophisticated setup,” he said.