Member Feature: Aviation Specialties Unlimited



Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU) has reached new heights with their cutting-edge new product in night vision solutions for aviators, the Element 3 (E3) lightweight night vision goggle (NVG). Voted IMA’s ‘Coolest Thing Made in Idaho’ 2023 winner, it is the culmination of six years of development to make a better NVG using feedback from the aviation community. “We had to get it right,” said President and Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Joseph Estrera, “because lives depend on it.”

Founded in 1995 by Mike and Chris Atwood with a vision to protect the lives of aviator first responders with a tool that would make their night missions safer, ASU puts safety and saving lives as their number one priority. Mike was a helicopter pilot and senior trainer in the U.S. Army. He taught other military pilots how to use night vision goggles and saw a strong need for their use outside of the military.

But first, Mike Atwood had a steep hill to climb. The FAA required NVG technology to be flown safely in the civil aviation space. “And in the beginning, no one in the FAA believed that this was a safe technology period,” explained Dr. Joe. Mike persevered and in 1999 he assisted, advocated, and heavily participated in the FAA/RCTA Special Committee-196 (SC-196) to develop the first guidelines for minimum operational requirements for NVGs. In 2001, this committee created the present-day Night Vision Image System (NVIS) FAA guidelines in DO-275. This subsequently began the FAA’s process to recognize and approve the unrestricted use of night vision goggles for first responders and law enforcement.

Today, night vision technology is a given on all first responder and law enforcement night missions. Crashes and fatalities that used to be more common before 1999 in civilian aviation night operations, are now rare. “Mike and I analyzed it last year and he’s basically responsible for 4.2 million safer flights since 2000 thanks to his effort, “ said Dr. Joe proudly.

With the E3 night vision goggle, ASU has packed four decades of pent-up innovation into one product.  “The present night vision goggle technology hasn’t been improved upon for over 40 years,” explained Dr. Joe. The E3 is cool because it has the highest electro optical performance available – the best image intensifiers operating in the lowest light levels with the highest resolution and acuity. It looks cool because it’s sleeker and more streamlined.

But the coolest thing about the E3 night vision google is its all-metal patented design. Made out of titanium and aluminum, it’s not only electromagnetic interference (EMI) resistant and environmentally rugged, it solves a huge human factors issue. “We engineered the E3 to be 30% lighter than the existing technology,” said Dr. Joe, “because how can you be cool if your neck is injured from regular repetitive motion carrying all that extra weight?”

A 2010 study by the U.S. Army had revealed that the biggest issue with night vision goggles is neck injuries due to the weight of the goggle. “A couple of years ago when we built the first prototype goggles with this technology, we gave eight of them to U.S. military to test and they wouldn’t give them back,” laughed Dr. Joe. It’s that sort of dedication to solving your customer’s problems that helped them win ‘The Coolest Thing Made in Idaho.’

Vicque Ebentheuer, ASU Marketing Manager, used social media and email to ask their fans and followers to vote and help spread the word to others. “I think that once people knew that we were nominated, the pilots with neck damage were so grateful they probably voted like crazy to support us,” said Dr. Joe. ASU was humbled by the win considering the impressive products they were competing against.

Long-time IMA members, they credit their IMA membership with helping them win ‘The Coolest Thing Made in Idaho.’  From helping ASU get the E3 development going to helping with their ISO 9001 certification, the tools that the IMA offers members have been significant to ASU’s success with the E3. They’ve helped us immensely,” exclaimed Dr. Joe, “We can’t thank them enough for their help.”