The U.S. military has long sought technologies that improve soldier effectiveness in combat, particularly ones that enhance situational awareness, communication and marksmanship.
The Army continues to struggle with development of its next-generation battlefield communications network, and the Defense Department’s shadowy research arm is seeking a foolproof robotic sniper scope. Meanwhile the commercial firearms industry seems to have already outdone both.
It was evident in January at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas that the commercial firearms industry has found solutions to those problems by using relatively inexpensive commercial, off-the-shelf technology.
The recently unveiled Inteliscope, for instance, turns an ordinary smartphone into a riflescope that can provide wind speed and direction in real time and can record video from a gun-barrel perspective. Companies like Leupold Optics already market apps to hunters and recreational marksmen that track skills progression and calculate elevation, wind speed and bullet drop.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been seeking smart-rifle technologies for years. The agency has tested several prototypes that include smart scopes and bullets that can seek a target during flight like a tiny missile.
Formally known as Project One Shot, the program aims to develop a scope that will take much of the burden of calculation off a sniper’s shoulders. For each shot, a sniper and his spotter must account for wind speed and direction, elevation and range. Even the temperature of the air, the shooter’s heart rate and the curvature of the Earth can affect a bullet’s path.
“The system developed will measure all relevant physical phenomena that influence the ballistic trajectory and rapidly calculate and display the offset aim point and confidence metric in the shooter’s riflescope,” according to DARPA documents.
DARPA recently awarded Cubic Corp. a $6 million contract to develop an “observation, measurement and ballistic calculation system” to automatically crunch those numbers without falling prey to the problems of inaccuracy, short battery life and overheating that occurred in earlier iterations.
TrackingPoint Inc., a company born out of its owner’s difficulty in placing long-range shots during an African safari, may have beaten Cubic to the punch by developing precision-guided firearms designed to fulfill exactly the desires DARPA has advertised. Its custom rifle allows the shooter to select a target and then fires the bullet itself based on geographic and environmental factors.
The 500 series consumer-grade TrackingPoint scopes start at $9,950. Other systems on the market have a $300 smartphone as their primary hardware. None of those systems claims to improve a shooter’s precision or accuracy outright.
“For the first time, [AR-15] enthusiasts will be able to make fast and accurate shots on moving targets out to five football fields away,” John Lupher, TrackingPoint CEO, said in a statement. “We expect not only strong demand for the 500 Series AR products, but also a growing demand for our technology across the industry.”
TrackingPoint also makes custom precision-guided firearms with an integrated smart scope designed for long-range hunting and sniper shots. The U.S. military has reportedly bought six of them for between $10,000 and $27,000 each. Inteliscope and other commercial technologies already can perform many of those actions, company President Jason Giddings told National Defense. There is almost no limit to the future applicability of mobile devices to shooting sports, hunting and military and law-enforcement training, he said.
“There is a huge amount of opportunity in the mobile-app market for all sorts of shooting applications,” Giddings said. “This is software-driven technology. We can keep improving the software indefinitely, and the hardware basically stays the same. The hardware is just a smartphone, which is a phenomenal platform that people already own.”
The Inteliscope has two components. The hardware is an adjustable mount that attaches to any Picatinny rail system. It holds any smartphone onto which is loaded a free mobile application that turns the phone into a “smart scope” designed for tactical use up to 150 meters by using the phone’s own camera. The app is available for download to iOS and Android devices.
The app provides a real-time display of local wind speed and direction and meteorological conditions that it automatically pulls from local weather services. It provides a compass heading and GPS location, record time-stamped video and can take photographs of the shooter, a particular shot or a training exercise.
The device can be used on rifles of different calibers, shotguns or handguns by selecting the appropriate ammunition from a menu within the application. The app stores customizable profiles of each shooter and weapon design, Giddings said.
Without dedicated telescopic optics, the Inteliscope is limited to close-range tactical applications within 150 meters, Giddings said. “While it is good for tactical uses, it’s really excellent for training. A SWAT team, for instance, could make an entry and stream all the video from their weapons’ perspective to a command-and-control computer outside. Later, they can get together and everyone can see what they did right and what they can do better next time.”
Soldiers could conceivably view footage from an overhead drone streamed to a smartphone clamped to the side of their rifles. The devices can be networked together so every member of a squad could see his teammates’ locations on an interactive map, Giddings said.
Many of those capabilities were demonstrated with a rifle that connects soldiers with each other, their commanders and small, unmanned surveillance aircraft by integrating smartphone technology directly into infantry weapons.
Colt Canada partnered with General Dynamics to develop the Sniper/Soldier Weapon and Observer Reconnaissance Devices system, nicknamed SWORD. The system integrates a ruggedized Android-compatible smartphone with an AR-15 style rifle.
Jeff MacLeod, general manager of Colt Canada agreed that mobile devices could be powerful assets to marksmen in the field.
“By combining modern smartphone technology with weapon-mounted scopes and laser rangefinders, soldiers have all the information they need literally at their fingertips. SWORD is not about simply delivering a computer or a display to soldiers; it delivers an entirely new capability centered on the rifle,” MacLeod said in a statement.
Using commercial, off-the-shelf technology, SWORD allows an individual direct access to navigation, communications and environmental data. It also incorporates a rangefinder and central power source that can provide electricity to scopes, tactical lights and lasers through contact points along the weapon’s rail system.