During Pathankot attack, Indian Army turned to little-known startup Tonbo Imaging

Anand Murali January 13, 2017 5 min

Story Highlights

  • Tonbo Imaging supplied monoculars, binoculars and weapon sights to the Indian Army during the Pathankot attacks
  • The devices capture up to nine images and fuses them through computer vision and machine learning to get the final visual
  • The company is working on a vision system for automobiles and is currently piloting the system with some companies

Early in the morning on January 2, 2016, a group of heavily armed terrorists attacked the Pathankot Air Force Station, part of the Western Air Command of the Indian Air Force.

The Indian Army immediately launched an operation to neutralise the terrorists. Amidst all this action, a shipment containing eight devices was quickly flown to Pathankot, on the request of the army, to help the operations team get an advantage over the attacking terrorists.

Tonbo Imaging recently received a $100 million contract from the Peruvian army and is in the process of fulfilling it  

The shipment consisted of advanced thermal imaging devices in the form of monoculars, binoculars and weapon sights developed by Tonbo Imaging, a Bengaluru-based company.

Tonbo has developed a multisensor fusion imaging system that can simultaneously see both heat (infrared spectrum) and light (visible spectrum) and fuse them into one image. Arvind Lakshmikumar, the founder-CEO of Tonbo, claims it is one of only two companies in the world developing this pixel-level image fusion device.

The company recently received a $100 million contract from the Peruvian army and is in the process of fulfilling it.

Homing in

It took the Indian Army a trip to the US to be convinced about the quality and efficiency of Tonbo’s products.

In its initial days, Tonbo had approached the Indian Army to sell its devices, but the Army was skeptical about the product as it did not have any existing users. Later, in 2012, Tonbo approached the US Army Special Forces, who procured around 15 pieces of its thermal imaging device from the company, helping Tonbo validate its product.

“The Indian military was on a joint exercise in the US when the US Army Special Forces were using this equipment (Tonbo’s); the visiting Indian team was fascinated by the equipment and on enquiring, found out that the devices came from back home in Bangalore,” says Arvind.

Tonbo had initially approached the Indian Army to sell its devices, but the Army was skeptical about the product as it did not have any existing users  

Tonbo had already sold its products to about four-five foreign clients before the Indian defence forces decided to procure its devices.

Today, Tonbo counts organisations like US agency Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), India’s NSG, CRPF, the Indian Army’s Northern Command, companies like BHEL, L&T, TATA and others, and security forces from across the world among its clientele.

Some of the company’s imaging systems were procured by the Turkish army to strengthen its fight against the IS.

All eyes on the ground (or skies)

Tonbo Imaging, a spinout of Sarnoff Corporation and Stanford Research International, was formed in 2008 by Arvind, an alumnus of BITS-Pilani and Carnegie Mellon University, who had moved to back India in 2004 to run Sarnoff’s India operations.

The company derives its name from the Japanese word for the dragonfly — the creature’s complex compound eyes are supposed to be one of the best vision systems in the animal world and are an inspiration for the company’s core systems.

Tonbo’s device lineup covers the entire range of defence space, be it land, water, or air systems.

One of its flagship devices is a tank periscope based on Maya, which provides better field of vision, about 100 degrees, compared to 40 degrees provided by a traditional periscope  

The two main hardware devices that form the base for the company’s product lineup are Hawkvision and Maya. Hawkvision is a shutterless, low-power, single-sensor, thermal imaging core and Maya, named after Arvind’s daughter, is a multisensory imaging core. The multisensor system can simultaneously show thermal (infrared) and visible light images fused together, and all this is achieved using less than 1 Watt of power.

tonbo_inside-1
Photon, a multi-sensor imaging system (left) and Hawkvision, a shutterless, low-power, single-sensor, thermal imaging core

One of its flagship devices is a tank periscope based on Maya, which provides better field of vision, about 100 degrees, as compared to 40 degrees provided by a traditional periscope.

“The multi-aperture optics system used in our devices captures up to nine images, instead of just one image like traditional imaging systems, and fuses them together to get the final visual,” says Arvind. The computer vision and machine learning technology developed by Tonbo analyses these images to create the final image seen on the display or through the sight scope.

Tonbo’s devices are expensive because of the advanced technology they employ. “When you move from 2 megapixel (MP) to 4MP in traditional imaging sensors, the price jump is not very significant. But, the materials used to develop thermal imaging sensors are expensive. So, a jump from 640X480 pixels to 1MP resolution results in the cost going up by 15 times,” explains Arvind.

Because of this exponential rise in sensor cost, Tonbo decided to re-design the optics of the device — rather than chase the megapixel game — to improve imaging quality.

What’s next for Tonbo

Tonbo Imaging working on a vision system for commercial autonomous vehicles and is piloting the system with some companies, including Autoliv.

The company has received a $100 million dollar contract from the Peruvian army and is in the process of fulfilling it  

One of the defence systems Tonbo is working on is to help tank personnel have a 360-degree field of view outside the tank through their head-mounted unit. A lot like a VR/AR headset.

Back in 2013, Tonbo had raised $6.4 million in Series-A funding from Silicon Valley-based VC firm Artiman Ventures. The company is currently in the process of closing their Series-B funding round.


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