Technology
5:00 am
Tue April 30, 2013

Computerized Rifle Makes Anyone an Expert Marksman - Should It?

The story as it aired on KUT News 90.5 FM

An Austin-based company, TrackingPoint, has developed a high-powered, long-range computerized rifle that can turn anyone into an expert marksman. But some wonder whether putting that technology in the hands of everyday people is a wise idea. 

At shooting range just outside of Austin, I’m holding one of TrackingPoint’s top-of-the-line, $22,000 rifles. I have some shooting experience. But I’ve never shot a big rifle before. Three company representatives walk me through it.

The rifle has a laser range-finder, a ballistics computer, and a WiFi transmitter that streams the shooter’s viewfinder onto a nearby iPad.

My first shot is from 250 yards. I put the gun’s laser on the target. Then I push a little red button to tag it – or lock on to it. Then – pull the trigger. Nothing happens. The computer waits for me to point the gun in exactly the right place. It’s called a “firing solution” — the perfect optimization of dozens of variables that will affect the bullet’s flight. The gun roars with a shot when it's ready. There’s no doubt when the computer has solved the problem.

The first shot is a hit. I try hitting another target at 500 yards. Almost a third of a mile. Same story: a hit.

There’s no way I could have hit these targets without the computer’s help – and these targets are standing still. The system can even hit things that are moving, says TrackingPoint’s August Crocker. "The tag is what we call persistent.  So it will stay with the moving target at the shooters intended point of impact and it will calculate the lead that that shot would need to hit that target," Crocker said.

The concept was born in 2009, when the company’s founder missed a gazelle he was shooting at during a hunting trip in Africa. He vowed to build a hunting technology that wouldn’t miss. The computer masters the physics. And it doesn’t experience the intense emotions — hunters call it Buck Fever – that can be an issue for human shooters. Even for experienced hunters like Robert Ellis: "Buck Fever is an adrenaline rush when you’re getting ready to shoot, and you start shaking and breathing really heavily. And everything you had planned on doing goes out the window."

Ellis says the longest shot he’s made with a traditional rifle is about 250 yards. Then he shot the TrackingPoint gun. After making one correction for wind, he hit the target on his second shot, at 1000 yards –10 football fields – in a 15 mile-an-hour crosswind. He said "doing that manually for anyone with no military experience or long range shooting experience would have been impossible, because you’re holding 20 feet above the target and 15 feet off to the side.” 

The company is marketing to hunters like Ellis, and long-range target shooters. But some worry what will happen when these computerized rifles are available to the public. Chris Frandsen is a West Point grad, who earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star in Vietnam.

Frandsen says he doesn't think the TrackingPoint technology should be allowed in the civilian world, because the gun makes it too easy for a criminal or a terrorist to shoot civilians from a distance, without being easily detected: "Where we have mental health issues, where we have soldiers who have PTSD, where we have children that are disassociated from society early on, where we have terrorists who have political cards to play, we have to restrict weapons that make them more efficient in terrorizing the population."

But Jason Schauble, TrackingPoint’s president, says because the company sells directly – instead of going through gun dealers – it knows who its customers are, and can vet them. And he says there’s a key feature that prevents anyone other than the registered owner from utilizing the gun’s capabilities. Schauble said "It has a password protection on the scope.  The gun will still operate as a firearm itself, but you cannot do the tag/track/exact, the long range, technology-driven precision guided firearm piece without entering that passcode."

Schauble served as a US Marine captain in Iraq, where he was shot in 2005. He was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star. He wants to put this technology into the military market, by adding features like night vision and thermal imaging: "I think the value proposition for this system is how do I take your average soldier, who has a basic level of training, and make him instantly more capable, make his training costs and time go down, and allow him to integrate with the battlefield network."

Schauble says right now his team is working on a super long range rifle that he hopes will someday break the world record for longest shot — 3,079 yards. That’s almost two miles.