RAZAR Riflescope Offers Push-Button Magnification

RAZAR Riflescope on a AR-15

When an Army Special Forces officer-turned engineer puts his mind to designing a military riflescope, he doesn’t forget the importance of creating something for the soldiers who will carry it that is easy to use, extremely accurate, light-weight and has long-lasting battery power.

Sandia National Laboratories optical engineer Brett Bagwell led the development of the Rapid Adaptive Zoom for Assault Rifles (RAZAR) prototype. At the push of a button, RAZAR can toggle between high and low magnifications, enabling soldiers to zoom in without having to remove their eyes from their targets or their hands from their rifles.

“The impetus behind the idea of push-button zoom is you can acquire what you’re interested in at low magnification and, without getting lost, zoom in for more clarity,” Bagwell said.

In addition to military riflescopes, RAZAR technologies are now being considered for other applications where speed, size, weight and power count. Applications include medical imaging, binoculars for the entire range of users from the military to birdwatchers, hunters’ scopes and cell phone cameras where optical zoom is needed to avoid the pixelated images associated with digital zoom.

Adaptive Zoom Riflescope

Bagwell began work on RAZAR in 2006 responding to Department of Defense interest in a compact zoom riflescope that could rapidly toggle between magnifications. Early work had been funded by Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

Bagwell found no commercial products or components that would enable the riflescope to meet military requirements, so he had to design and build the first RAZAR from scratch and develop a manufacturing process.

The RAZAR prototype uses a patented active optical zoom system, called “adaptive zoom,” invented by David Wick, who was working as a Sandia optical engineer at the time.

Traditional optical zoom changes magnification by adjusting the positions of the lenses along the optical axis. For example, a 35-mm camera mechanically moves the lenses as you zoom in on or out from a subject.

Adaptive zoom changes the focal lengths of two or more lenses by varying the curvature of the lenses’ surfaces to provide optical zoom without changing their overall positions relative to one another, allowing the user to view either a wide-angle image or zoom in on an area of interest with a compact, low-power system, Wick said.

The invention, Bagwell said, means “this is the first time in a long time that there has been a new technology that a direct-view optical designer can take advantage of.”

How It Works

Three core technologies make adaptive zoom work for RAZAR:

A polymer lens core has two flexible, hermetically sealed membranes, which encapsulate a polymer fluid. The three-quarter-inch lenses are aligned with glass lenses to complete the optical design.

  • A piezoelectric actuator electro-mechanically changes the flex of the lenses, achieving the correct position within 250 milliseconds to an accuracy of 100 nanometers, about 1/100th the thickness of a human hair. These actuators operate the way the muscles of the human eye change the curvature of the eye’s lens to focus far away or up close.
  • Variable-focal length system design tools had to be developed from scratch, including analytical expressions and computer models that trace rays of light through optical systems. Riflescope’s peak optical quality half a light wave.
  • Variable optical lenses were first developed in the late 1800s, but had few applications because of the limitations of materials. Adaptive zoom accomplishes true optical zoom (as opposed to digital zoom) by changing the focal length of two or more lenses in concert, without the normal mechanical motion, reducing the size and power requirements of the zoom lens, Wick said.

The theory that underlies zoom scopes hadn’t changed significantly since the 1960s, until the adaptive zoom technology came along. Using adaptive zoom, Sandia’s team worked for 18 months to achieve an optical quality of about half a wavelength of light.

Guaranteeing Lens Quality

Sandia had to perfect the manufacturing process of the lenses so the quality of the prototype could be replicated. When the polymer is sealed, no air bubbles or specks of dust could remain in the lenses or on the surrounding rings, Bagwell said.

Freddie Santiago, who at the time was a doctoral candidate in physics and in Sandia’s Student Internship Program, developed the process for making the lenses.

“You have to start from the basics: How do we make the polymer? How do we stretch the polymer and make it an optical surface? We had to understand the process, from mixing the polymer all the way to the final product and we had to do it in a systematic way,” Santiago said.

Actuator Flexes Lenses

While many of the technologies and designs that make up the riflescope came from mechanical engineers, robotics experts, chemists and other Sandia experts, Bagwell went outside the labs for the actuator to flex the lenses, seeking help from Dynamic Structures and Materials, LLC, a small business in Franklin, Tennessee.

Matthew Stefanick, who was the company’s lead engineer on the project, said the team used an ultrasonic piezo motor to actuate the flex in the lenses. A voltage is applied at an ultrasonic frequency to vibrate and move a rotor and lead screw, which causes the lens to flex.

Stefanick said the decision to use an ultrasonic motor provided a key feature, a “zero-power hold” that maintains the last selected focus, even if the power is lost.

The feature allows users to complete 10,000 actuations on two AA batteries, Bagwell said.

Meeting the power usage, speed and accuracy specifications required by the military took years. “As an engineer, I was impressed with our progress,” Bagwell said. “But as an operator, I was constantly dissatisfied. We had to make it smaller. We had to make it lighter. It’s got to toggle faster.”

Rapid Adaptive Zoom for Assault Rifles optical prototype
A member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, left, demonstrates the Rapid Adaptive Zoom for Assault Rifles prototype developed at Sandia National Laboratories. Photo courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.

Ex-Sergeant Says Riflescope Could Save Lives

From 2010-2012, the team also ensured the riflescope would be reliable in the field by conducting shock, vibration and temperature testing, Bagwell said.

By 2010, Bagwell began demonstrating it to the military and, in late 2012, tested it with representatives from U.S. Special Operations Command at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center near Edinburgh, Indiana. When he handed the rifles to military personnel to let them test them, he realized that Sandia had developed a concept that would benefit the military.

“The guys picked it up and when they pushed the button and it zoomed, and then instantly it zoomed back out, they were like kids at Christmas. There was this look of astonishment and pleasure,” he said. “That’s very gratifying. Here’s this grizzled veteran looking at me like I’ve just created magic.”

Michael Squire, then a sergeant first class with Special Operations Research Support Element, said the ability to zoom between near and far targets within seconds, without taking his hand off the weapon, is “game-changing.”

“The difference that can make, especially with somebody shooting back, could mean life or death,” he said.

Feedback from ex-military personnel and soldiers who have tried RAZAR has motivated Bagwell. He is now working to develop night vision systems and recently demonstrated adaptive zoom in thermal infrared.

“It’s an opportunity for me to take my technical expertise and give back to people I really care about,” he said.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

If a commercial version were available, would you consider adaptive zoom for your optics? Let us hear your thoughts yea or nay in the comment section.

Source: Sandia National Lab. Reprinted with permission.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. As a bit of humor, push-button zoom has been available for years…

    In video games.

    If you take FPS games as ‘science fiction’, this is yet another example of engineers taking science fiction and making it science fact.

  2. I like the idea, but I would like to see data on the long term effects of heat and cold on the life of the optics and the response time. The price is also important. Can a range finder be included so that the ranging point can be more selective as the range increases.

  3. I’d be very interested in getting my hands on one of these new scopes, depending of course on the price point. It is still a prototype I believe but it’s amazing how quickly products go from prototype to product. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw these on the market in a year or two.

    Still pretty cool stuff.

  4. A note to Secundius- all producers use such info output releases as a market likelihood to warrant production. ( It’s called; Market Research ). That’s how we get reliablility also; WE know what works & what we like! The producers need OUR inputs. In that regard, I say Heck Yeah ! I’d buy it in a heartbeat, which, by the way, could be exactly the point in some situations. Beyond those circumstances, I can see a huge advantage in hunting; if one could quickly zero on the target without losing it in the field of view, why would you not want it, or help bring it forward to production ? Besides, Sandia IS a longtime manufacturer of reliable systems-they know their stuff. They’re an American business, support their efforts!

  5. I believe this briefing of data was very informative for anyone willing to improve there shooting applications regardless of mission status or other objectives if you will.

    Personaly, I am impressed. Soldier,game hunter,target shooter, etc, this device is heading us in the right direction. The more diverse and efficient the shooter,the more productive we all can be when we squeeze a live trigger. So let’s hope that these gentlemen succeed at another improvement for the sake of mankind whether it be for protecting our existence or for the sake of parenthood at the range. Some dont recognize improvment or its origins if it jumped up and bit them. We should all be so fortunate. Here’s to enginuity and the few that are able to utilize it for those who cant. What a simple genius I say.

    God bless those of us who live in the trenches,
    those like us, and those that were.

    Thanks for the article and I vote yes for the sale of your product to civi’s.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly G-Man! Great article. As a former Special Ops guy myself, I too like to stay in touch with emerging technology. Also, simply because an item may not be readily available to the civilian market as @Secundius would like, doesn’t mean they cannot be had. There are places where such equipment could be secured by an interested party.

    Good job Woody!

  7. I don’t see the point of the article. The RAZAR, Adaptive Range CCTV Rifle Scopes, are still in the Prototype stage of development. The chances of actually acquiring them for civilian usage. Is between NIL and NONE. So, what’s the point of evaluating a product, which is probably not going too see the “Civilian” market for at least 5-years to more likely 10-years. Hell, there’s not even talking about pricing them yet, or even in the foreseeable or distant future…

    1. @ Secondius: As usual, only your misguided thought process of mind would lead you to believe a product had been evaluated here. Woody was merely imparting some fascinating information about an emerging technology that should more than likely be of interest to the CTD reader base given our backgrounds and hobbies that bring us here to begin with.

      And Woody was correct in his assumption, as many readers will have found this article to be quite informative while others such as myself were helpfully alerted with an update as to the status of an emerging technology we were already following.

      There is something terribly wrong with you when you can’t find the politeness to just move along, but instead feel compelled to be rude enough to make comments that serve no purpose. I could understand it if you had actually found an error in Woody’s report or disagreed with an opinion he inserted, but to just proclaim his article pointless for the rest of us based on your foolish assumption that this was some premature product review is absolute ignorance on your part.

      I think you owe Woody and the rest of us an apology for such rude behavior.

      And for your edification, this technology has nothing whatsoever to do with your so-called “Adaptive Range CCTV Rifle Scopes “. This technology is based on pure real-time optics.

    2. The article is merely informative and indicates that a new and perhaps better optical shooting “tool” is in the works. I am certain that if the author had information on civilian availability, pricing, etc., he would have entered it in the article, but he wisely left it out, since to do otherwise would have been speculation. Capiche?

    3. I almost forgot to add: Well said, G-man. Your comment was well thought-out and articulate (as usual). Thanks….and thanks also to Woody.

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