Long Shot: Inside the Scope of Smart Weapons
Watch Motherboard's new documentary on smart weapons, the gamification of warfare, and a laser-guided robo-rifle that aims itself.
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.
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