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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.

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  1. This is yet more boob bait for keyboard commando’s and nerds in think tanks and defense contractors. NB that the original contracts are over-budget and blew past their deadlines. Typical of defense contractors bilking the US taxpayer.

    It is crap like this that makes me want to slash the DOD’s budget by 50 to 60%.

  2. I’m going over your list of objectives thinking “right, well the shooter can compensate for that” before realizing that this system is supposed to make it so the shooter doesn’t have to. Seems like a normal DARPA SNAFU.

  3. Foghorn, cold, dry air is the most dense. Warm, humid air is the least dense. This is because water is lighter than air on the molecular level. This is why my aircraft’s performance sucks in Houston, TX in the summer time when we’re heavily loaded.

  4. Bullets are ballistic. That means that their path is determined when the gun is fired. From then on, they do exactly what external forces make them do. Now if DARPA can come up with an internal guidance system for a bullet, then we have a possible way to make this work.

    What this also leaves out is the gun platform–in other words, the person holding the firearm. Hold and squeeze still applies, no matter how much information the computer gives the shooter.

  5. That’s DARPA’s job, try to make the impossible work. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t, but you don’t get anywhere by giving up before you start. And when then do succeed they help keep this county one more step ahead of our adversaries.

  6. This sounds like a great way to spend money and make a few senators feel good, but I seriously doubt it will prove to be an efficient force-multiplier even if it does ever work.

    On most battlefields the fighter’s biggest problem isn’t hitting your target: it’s identifying your target. Rangefinders dont help with that. Within a 200-300 yards there’s very little advantage to a ranging scope anyway, because bullet drop is not a first-order variable. Outside of 300 yards the most difficult variable to compensate for is wind and atmospheric conditions, and rangefinders don’t help with that either.

    Specialized sniper scopes could benefit from automatic ranging and hold compensation, but I don’t think our snipers and spotters are lacking in those skills right now anyway. Uncle Sam is paying some insanely good shooters on our behalf, and toys like this might let them make slightly quicker shots at long range.

    • Exactly.

      Having discussed this at length with trigger-pullers who have served in Iraq, the issue isn’t the mechanics of shooting.

      The issues with getting more bullets on target are all legal and policy. Our DM’s and snipers could have killed far more Muj’s than they did… if we had different ROE’s and a lack of a need for someone up the chain on the other end of a radio link to OK the shot.

  7. So with some sensors and GPS chip, the unit can know elevation, air density, time of day, temperature, angle of fire, range, load performance, and it can calculate. This is currently feasible. There may even be a way to measure the cumulative effects of wind to target rather than rely on a user input.

    • Or we could just spend a little time training a shooter, and let that wonderful computer that resides in that orb three feet above their ass do its magic. Cheaper that way. The other real reason to do things this way is answered with a simple question: What happens when all the latest doodads and baubles run out of battery or otherwise take a giant crap on you when you need them most, and you’re reliant on technology?
      On the flip side other posters have already hit the nail with the identification and politiks surrounding the shot, and the need to improve or eliminate that variable.

      • Training a sniper takes a non-trivial amount of time.

        Giving the Designated Marksman a scope that’ll let him perform like someone who’s been to sniper school for as long as the batteries hold out is a lot faster, and might be cheaper.

  8. Tanks do it, and all that software was developed in the early ’80s. Shouldn’t be much harder to scale it down with better, smaller components.

  9. The M1 series of tanks already does this. There is a ballistic computer that has manual inputs for ammo type and Lot #, barometric pressure, and ammo temperature. There are automatic inputs for range (via LRF), wind speed and direction, slew speed (when the tank and/or target are moving), and cant. It enables an M1 (while moving) to engage moving targets at ranges in excess of 3,000 meters (I could tell you exactly how far, but then I’d have to kill you).

    The technology exists, but I don’t know that you could miniaturize all of those components (particularly the actual ballistic computer) and make them energy efficient enough to put them on a rifle. Maybe on a M2 .50 cal that’s vehicle mounted, but I don’t see it happening (soon) on sniper rifle.

  10. Actually, this seems to be a trivial exercise _except_ for ensuring portability. Any meteorologists here? I know that they make laser and ultra sonic anemometers. I _think_ that an ultra sonic anemometer would also give you density information. Laser anemometers actually measure the speed of dust in the air, but if you can relate reflectivity to size, perhaps it’d take a good guess at density too?

    The downside (other than portability) is that these are all active sensors. Not an issue on the range or the blind, but perhaps a disadvantage on the battlefield?

    • I doubt the badguys in afghanistan have laser detectors. Might be an issue against opposition that’s at technological parity, but not in the current conflict.

  11. Not all of the electronics need to be -in- the scope. It could be tethered be a cable, or even wirelessly transmitted via bluetooth or some other (more secure) protocol. This is already being kludged together downrange by our snipers with iphones, software, meterological data and tactical scopes, so a solution that pulls all of it together automagically would be neat. The only issue I see is that of the impossibly long shots that snipers have been pulling off by sheer seat-of-thier-pants know how. Would the scope say “no solution possible” beyond maximum expected ranges? Hopefully there will still be manual settings to let them take that 1.5 mile shot. Because those ones are so cool 🙂

    • Anybody ever read the Stephen Hunter book “I, Sniper”? Bob Lee Swagger vs. bad guys with this kind of scope technology. Good read.

  12. do you realize that in your exaples neither a human can hit the target? A computer is faster that the human mind calculating gravity, distance (IR) and the other variables. Sure it’s not perfect, but it is better than a paper and pen, writing numbers in the battlefield. Say to the NASA that a computer that calculate physics it’s useless. Stop playn call of duty. Take part of the marines and get the feeling. I bet you would’t even be able to calculate 2+6 in a war zone.

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