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Tech by VICE

Long Shot: Inside the Scope of Smart Weapons

Watch our new documentary on smart weapons, the gamification of warfare, and a laser-guided robo-rifle that aims itself.

by Brian Anderson
Sep 23 2013, 5:05pm

It was high noon. The Tower's 3.5-ton bell chimed out 16 poms, right on cue. By then, the temperature was well into the triple digits. The sun beamed down on locals and university students, faculty, and staff alike, all going about their business and lives. August 1, 1966, was just another Monday in Austin, Texas. Then someone started shooting.

Claire Wilson was the first to be shot at. She was eight months pregnant. The shooter made sure to hit the 18-year-old anthropology student in the abdomen. Claire's fiance Thomas Eckman was right there beside her, and took a round as he knelt to her aid. Confusion followed as the crackle of shots reverberated across campus. The bullets just kept coming—in other directions, at other bystanders. But where were the shots coming from? 

Before long, authorities spotted a man, later identified as former US Marine and UT engineering student Charles Whitman, perched on the 28th floor observation deck of the university's Main Building, the University of Texas at Austin's 307-foot administrative center known simply as the Tower. It's one of most iconic features in Austin.

For a skilled sniper bent on senseless slaughter, it was the perfect spot from which to track and kill innocent civilians. Whitman adhered, chillingly, to the one shot, one kill sniper ethos, meaning none of his victims were hit by follow-up shots after they'd crumbled to the ground. When it was all over, 16 of them were dead. Whitman wounded another 32, one of whom later died.

It was without precedent. The Austin Tower massacre almost single-handedly led to the rise of the modern SWAT unit. Nearly five decades on and the tragedy stands as one of the first major mass shootings in American history, and being somewhat unique in that it put sniping front and center in the national consciousness.

Once again, America's focus on long-range shooting in focused on Austin, albeit under less horrific circumstances. Today, in the figurative shadows of the Tower, applied technology startup TrackingPoint Solutions is working tirelessly to turn novice shots into precision snipers. 

The company made headlines in early 2013 when it unveiled the precision guided firearm (PGF). Think of it as a long-range, laser-guided robo rifle—as much Linux-based computer as traditional firearm. The PGF's closed-loop system comprises not just the gun itself, a custom Surgeon rifle, but also custom ammunition and, notably, a proprietary (and WiFi-enabled) scope. The technology packed into TrackingPoint's initial PGF package is so advanced that we'd heard it could have an inexperienced shooter, maybe even someone who hasn't ever fired a gun, putting lead on targets at over 1,000 away in mere minutes. Not lifetimes. Not years. Minutes.  

Welcome to the dawn of the world's first smart rifle, seen here at a private gun range near Sonora, Texas. Photo: Derek Mead/MOTHERBOARD.

That this sort of platform is now publicly available—TrackingPoint caters to hunters and sport shooters, more than anything—has Peter Asaro recalling the Tower tragedy. When he first heard of the PGF and TrackingPoint's aim to increase so-called "first shot success probability" Asaro, a theorist and technology ethicist at The New School, told me that he was immediately reminded of Whitman. 

"The farthest shot he was able to kill somebody was 500 yards," said Asaro, who's also an affiliated scholar at Stanford Law's Center for Internet and Society and a founding member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control. "And when looking now at TrackingPoint, they're guaranteeing accuracy at 1,200 yards."

Maybe you see where this is going. If the precision of any of the weapons in his makeshift arsenal had been higher, say to the PGF's extreme-range threshold, could Whitman have killed all of his unwitting targets that bright, steamy Monday in the summer of 1966? Could he have killed even more people?

It's hard—perhaps impossible—to say. But let's back up. 

If you really want to get at the root of how, in purely ballistic speak, TrackingPoint might very well turn the firearms industry on its head you have to remember that the startup, which over the past year have grown to a staff of around 100, isn't really a gun company in traditional terms. The "firearm" in "precision-guide firearm" is just one part of a very complex system. CEO Jason Schauble said as much: He told me that TrackingPoint has done nothing new in terms of developing guns proper. The secret sauce, TrackingPoint's bread and butter, is in the scope. 

A test mule for a scope system in TrackingPoint's lab. Photo: Derek Mead/MOTHERBOARD.

The art of sniping has traditionally been one of complex ballistics. A long-distance shot must be aimed above a target due to the bullet's drop (gravity) and a slew of other ambient factors that play with projectiles—wind, incline, cant, humidity, temperature, the coriolis effect. TrackingPoint's system does the exact same real-time ballistics calculation, only it does it for you. This is what the company means when it says it's "democratizing accuracy".

They call it TTX, short for Tag, Track, Xact. Put very simply, when you tag a target down range the PGFs laser-range finder beams there and back 54 times per second, illuminating the target and measuring the time delay "reflected by the target, providing range measurement accuracy within one meter," according to the PGF white paper. From here, the system's on-board ballistic computer realigns your reticle, seen through the PGF's unique heads-up display, to account for said ambient factors. Squeeze and hold the trigger, and only when your pip perfectly aligns with the reticle will the system's electronic trigger reset, firing the gun.

The technology that makes this sort of shot sequence work is disruptive, the white paper continues, in that it's the first time a firearms package has comprehensively integrated "microelectronics, microprocessors, and networking technology into a small arms weapons system." In other words, the PGF isn't just jet fighter launch-and-launch technology in your hands. The scope records video every time the system tags, tracks, and fires. Being WiFi enabled, users can immediately upload videos of their kills from the scope directly to social media. Shared killing—it's part of a broader push to target digital natives. 

"If there's one thing we've got, it's 12-year-olds on the Internet," said TrackingPoint's marketing director Oren Schauble, who is Jason's younger brother.

The PGF's technology and heads-up display is also featured in a simple shooter app game, and in the future, potentially a full-on Modern Warfare style videogame. Jason Schauble calls this a paradigm shift in not only the way we manufacture "guns," but in the way we go about the shooting experience.

He doesn't seem to take that lightly. He told me he understands the full weight of what he's doing, of making something like this available to anyone with $17,000 to spare. This is a guy who is intimately familiar with the sheer power of guns. Schauble is a former Marine who was shot at close range by an AK-47 as he tried to pull his dead friend out of an insurgent house. Schauble underwent over a dozen surgeries just to get back some semblance of dexterity in his right hand. He wears a shard of the shot around his neck. Some of the bullet remains lodged in his arm.

As much as it takes the load off of shooters, the gun isn't autonomous. It's something TrackingPoint takes pains to distance itself from, stressing how PGF shooters are always in the loop, so to speak, in "tagging, aiming, and pulling the trigger." The company is making the case for the PGF actually bringing a much-needed dose of introspection to killing—knowing exactly when your gun will fire takes a lot of the stress and nerves out of shooting. If anything, in the heat of a hunt, hostage situation or standoff, you can focus purely on the shot, taking it only when you're damn near positive you can pull it off in one fell, ethical swoop. 

To hear TrackingPoint tell it, this actually enhances some of our innate human abilities and, as such, ushers in a new age of ethical killing. And they're not alone in saying there's a case to be made for ultra long-range, precision smart-weapons technology like that of the PGF as being hurdles to conflict. To pull again from the PGF's white paper, the smart weapon "has the potential to act as a deterrent to war," by sheer virtue of its sheer accuracy.

This all said, TrackingPoint is "quick to emphasize the rifle doesn't fire 'by itself,'" as ArsTechnica reported. Rather: 

...the trigger's pull force is dynamically raised to be very high until the reticle and pip coincide, at which point the pull force is reset to its default. In this way, the shooter is still in control of the rifle's firing, and at any point prior to firing you can release the trigger.  

The PGF might "aim" itself, but it's you, the user, who ultimately decides to make the thing go bang. The question is whether or not critics of the PGF, cribbing from a Colbert Report bit, are right to call this "skill-free killing." Has killing become too easy? Is the PGF to blame?

Motherboard's Derek Mead takes a 1,000-yard PGF shot off the top of Sandstone Mountain in Llano, Texas. That's Darren calling wind.

The ATV ride up Sandstone Mountain is almost violent. Up top, where we found ourselves baking with some of the TrackingPoint team on a live-fire test this past July, all those ambient environmental factors the PGF adjusts for shot through the roof. Darren Jones, a former Marine and military contractor who now does marketing for TrackingPoint, struggled to call wind. 

Far down below, in a clearing 998 yards away, is our target, a big wood board with a large bullseye. After a dozen or so shots between Darren, Oren, and Motherboard's Derek Mead and myself, we head back down to see how we did. 

It was the wind that did it. You could clearly see our shots between six and twelve inches to the left of the target. Direct hits? Or as Darren called them, "killing shots"? Far from it. But still, pretty close for 998 yards. That's pretty impressive, right? For a beginner, maybe, but Darren seemed bummed by the wind.

Later that same day, we went hunting at dusk for feral pigs. From the stuffy comforts of a hunting blind, Darren fired from 300 yards on a hapless boar. The shot looked good, but the creature righted itself almost instantly and fled into the bush. After some intense searching, Darren gave up. He'd later tell us how it was the first time he'd ever had this result with the PGF. (He provided us with the HUD footage of the shot, but both he and TrackingPoint's engineers can't figure out why the recording freezes just prior to the gun firing.) If the PGF enables skill-free killing, we probably have to do some serious thinking about what we actually mean by "skill" and "killing." The PGF is by no means perfect, at least not yet. 

But that doesn't mean it's not really, really good at doing precisely what it's designed to do. It took all but five minutes for me to put that one together. That's how long I waited, in another stuffy blind on the opposite side of the ranch, for a 250-pound hog to saunter out of the brush and into a clearing, a black blob in the HUD's reticle. It was a big thing, the sort of critter that my guide, a leather-skinned ranch hand named Chris, referred to as a "fuckin' toad." I dropped my tag, aligned the pip and reticle, and just when I thought the PGF would fire, it did. It was a 200 yard shot to the neck. I was told if it had been just fractions of an inch further to the left I would've blown the thing's head clean off.

To think, even experienced snipers "have difficulty making first-round hits at long range," as TrackingPoint claims. But there I was, just some dude who only 48 hours prior had neither fired nor held a gun. One shot, one kill. 

It's this ease of use that Jonathan Moreno, a philosopher and ethicist at the Center for American Progress, says has very serious implications for hostage and standoff negotiations. He's concerned that something like the PGF will only have authorities feeling like they don't have to engage in the negotiating process as hard with the proverbial bad guy.

"If their intuition says this guy is not going to engage in a conversation very long," Moreno said, "would that make them feel more comfortable using the weapon? A shortcut around negotiation—that would worry me." 

It's part of a bigger question surrounding military and law enforcement organizations acquiring smart weapons, the kind of tools that kit out the US Army's recently revived Land Warrior program. US Department of Defense and select law enforcement organizations are certainly interested in TrackingPoint's product. The problem is that the US government's weapons-procurement processes are, like those of most allied governments around the world, staggeringly slow. It can take months, years even, to get a product cleared just for initial small-scale testing, to say nothing of large-scale testing and, if the weapon check outs, approval and roll out. 

TrackingPoint doesn't want to wait around. To hear Jason Schauble tell it, they'll do it better and faster, and sell it to the public all the while. The company tells me they're on pace to sell 500 PGFs by the end of 2013, which would double initial projections. As of this writing, the startup has sold $250,000 worth of its custom ammo alone.

"If their intution says this guy is not going to engage in a conversation very long, would that make them feel more comfortable using the weapon? A shortcut around negotiation—that would worry me."

The elephant in the room is regulation. In the past week, we've seen two unrelated and non-smart-weaponized mass shootings, at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, and in a gang melee in Chicago. Both events gave rise to little more than a murmur from a gridlocked Washington, where lawmakers, as they're wont to do in times like these, tend to not rock the boat too much. Often this means actually loosening guns laws, as NPR explained.

Asaro takes issue with that through the prism of the PGF. "I think we should ask whether police officers and especially citizens should be able to access this kind of technology," he said. "And if so, how is it going to be regulated and restricted?"

Huntley-Brinkley Report on the Austin Tower shooting. 

Which brings us back to Charles Whitman. Had he had his hands on something far more precise, to the tune of the PGF, could Whitman, who in the lead up to his spree had been complaining of increasingly emboldened voices in his head, have done more damage?

It should be noted that the three models of PGF that are currently available are all bolt-action hunting rifles. When it comes to close-quarters scenarios, these prove too bulky, too unwieldy, too slow for mass killing. Besides, the system itself isn't designed for speed. Tagging, tracking, and realigning add up to precision, but not quick shooting.

TrackingPoint has plans to apply its PGF platform to a veritable suite of advanced weaponry and apps, from drones to pistols, even to Google Glass. We saw and tested a prototype scope attached to an AR-15, which definitely allows for faster shooting.

For a skilled sniper like Whitman, a PGF may have increased his killing range, but it's impossible to tell. And with the vast majority of gun violence committed with handguns, concern over TrackingPoint's rifle appearing in the wrong hands pales in comparison to the vast gun debate. But there's another side to the question: What happens when a gun that's easier to learn and shoot than any other in history falls into the right hands?

"What are we going to develop for law enforcement that they can stay ahead of the next gen of mass shooters?" asked Asaro. "I think that sort of arms race is a dangerous game to get into."    

And if we limit the number of tools available to bad guys, does that mean their intent still won't be there? That they're not going to find other ways to do get the job done? 

"Bad people are always going to do bad things," said Jason Schauble. "So if we are to say our technology is in some way going to contribute to more bad things happening in aggregate around the world, I don't think that's a fair statement."

The fairer statement? In his words, that TrackingPoint has enabled more people who like hunting and shooting to do those things better. "I don't see that as necessarily increasing the number of threats using this for bad purposes than already exists today with firearms," Schauble contends. "I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing."