There’s a story in Wired this week about DARPA’s new project to develop 10 prototype scopes for snipers that will adjust itself based on a given target to provide the perfect firing solution. It sounds like the lazy marksman’s dream come true — press a button, put the crosshairs on the target, and hey presto instant hit. Its a great project, but I get the feeling that its still doomed to failure with the current level of technology…
For those who remember high school physics with fondness you may recall problems where you needed to figure out how far away a projectile will land or how high it will go, and to do that all you needed were the vertical and horizontal velocity of the object. That’s all well and good for paper problems where air density is negligible and the stage is a frictionless plane, but in the real world the variables are mindboggling.
In the real world, air resistance is not negligible. Projectiles lose velocity as they go (affecting the final impact point dramatically), and exactly how much they lose depends on the density of the air between you and your target. A rifle zeroed in a warm, dry climate will no longer be anywhere close to the mark in a cold, damp climate because the air density is so much greater. And figuring out that density in a computerized manner is no easy task — What if the gun is being fired from an air conditioned room into a swampy sweatbox of a climate? What if the outside temperature is negative three, but you’re in a warm and comfy stadium? There’s no reference you can truly trust, whether its the ambient room conditions or conditions steamed into the computer based on your location and the weathermen.
Wind is the next big concern, as it has a tendency to push your projectiles off target. Sure you can calculate the wind direction and speed at your current position, but is that really what the bullet will experience once you let it fly? What if you’re in a moving vehicle? What if you’re entrenched in a hide where the wind isn’t blowing, but there’s a blizzard between you and your target? For example the wind over the range at MCB Quantico snakes its way uprange, blowing one way at the thousand yard line and the exact opposite at the berm with variations on a theme in the middle. Its infuriating, and there’s a reason the Marines love it. But can any computer accurately describe that and model it sufficiently to predict the bullet’s path?
Even the simplest of tasks become difficult when you send it into the field. Laser rangefinders are a dime a dozen these days, but integrating it into a package with a riflescope and giving it enough juice to lase a target a thousand yards away drastically reduces battery life and makes it prone to overheating — something that isn’t really desirable in the heat of battle and especially in the already sweltering environment of our forces’ current playground.
I don’t hold much hope for DARPA being able to pull this off and be able to improve very much on the existing designs. The private sector has been trying for ages, notable members of that group being the Burris Eliminator and something or other that Nikon put together that doesn’t seem to have caught on. Then again, they do have a ludicrous amount of money to throw at problems.
The proposal for the project has the ETA for a prototype set for 15 months, so I guess we’ll see what they come up with in 2014.