TrackingPoint's sensor-packed smart gun redefines the term 'point and shoot'

Jason Schauble is on a mission to disrupt the firearms market with the same sensor technology that powers your smartphone. Using components similar to what you’d find inside common mobile devices, Schauble and his team are building a “smart rifle” that would empower even first-time shooters to hit a bull’s-eye from 3100 yards away—farther than any confirmed shot with a small-arms weapon.

It’s all part of Schauble’s “Super Gun” initiative, a bombastic title for a project that focuses more on pushing the boundaries of ballistic science than on designing a superaccurate hunting rifle for people buy at Wal-Mart.

Schauble is a former U.S. Marine and CEO of TrackingPoint. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because we bumped into TrackingPoint during CES 2013. Schauble was there showcasing his Precision Guided Firearms, or PGFs—three futuristic hunting rifles sporting CPUs, Wi-Fi radios, gyroscopes, and other components that usually show up on the spec sheets of Samsung and Apple.

At upwards of $22,000 a pop the PGF isn’t (currently) mass-market technology, but we nonetheless have a rifle that can automagically nail a kill shot at a mile and a half away. No training required.

The PGF is a high-powered rifle that runs Linux and broadcasts its own Wi-Fi signal.

The takeaway is clear: The advent of cheap, powerful mobile components is changing everything from watches to weaponry. The same gyroscopes and accelerometers that permit you to play Angry Birds enable the PGF’s onboard Linux computers to calculate the perfect firing angle required to hit a seemingly impossible target.

It’s literally point-and-shoot

According to Schauble, an average shooter equipped with a dumb rifle can reliably hit targets at 250 yards on a firing range. Accuracy at 1000 yards or more is typically beyond the capability of anyone but an expert marksman—unless they’re using a smart rifle like TrackingPoint’s XS1 PGF. The largest PGF that TrackingPoint currently makes, the XS1 requires $20,000 worth of high-tech optics and tracking technology.

Here’s how it works: You shoulder the rifle and look through the scope, which is actually a high-contrast 640 by 480 OLED display that plays streaming video from a 14.6-megapixel CMOS sensor mounted on the front of the gun. It’s sort of like having a digital camera with a 110m telephoto lens strapped to the barrel—one that streams video at 54 frames per second and is aided by image-processing software. Through the scope, you see a head-up displaypacked with visual data, including crosshairs for centering your target.

“The sensors in our rifles are really quite similar to the image sensor in your iPhone,” says John Lupher, CTO and cofounder of TrackingPoint. “Color correction, magnification, enhanced contrast—we do a lot of image processing to help hunters see their targets more clearly.”

Looking through the scope of the PGF is like looking into a tiny jet fighter cockpit, complete with a data-packed head-up display.

Once you see something you want to shoot—a trophy buck, for example—you place your crosshairs over the spot you want to hit, and press the bright red Tag button on the right side of the gun’s trigger housing. The PGF’s onboard technology kicks in and measures the distance to your target using laser rangefinders, and then calculates the perfect angle for the shot, factoring in data such as ambient temperature, barometric pressure, and rifle angle. It pulls all of this information from myriad sensors built into the rifle barrel.

The PGF’s computer correlates the data with manually inputted wind speed and direction data. The computer also accounts for the ballistic characteristics of the rifle and its ammunition, then paints a little red dot over the spot you tagged—the trophy buck’s left shoulder, for example—and puts a big blue X on the HUD. The X turns red (signalling that it’s time to shoot) only when the computer determines that the rifle is positioned to hit the target with near-perfect accuracy.

There’s even embedded technology to prevent you from making a bad shot before the X turns red: The trigger itself will push back on your finger until the computer determines that your shot will hit the target as intended. Once it’s confident that the shot will be accurate, the trigger’s resistance plummets, and the rifle fires.

This lock-on technology also improves weapon safety, by preventing a hunter from making stupid mistakes—though the user can disable the advanced tracking mode at any time, at which point the PGF can be fired at will like any other dumb rifle. TrackingPoint is building these weapons for hunting enthusiasts, but it also hopes to partner with military and law enforcement agencies, neither of which has an interest in a rifle that refuses to fire when you pull the trigger.

The astounding popularity of smartphones and tablets has made mobile tech components—gyroscopes, CPUs, and OLED screens—small enough and cheap enough to be built into firearms.

If your target wanders a bit—as game animals tend to do—the PGF tracks it and ensures that your tag remains on the precise spot where you left it. To pull off this trick, the onboard CPU tracks the direction and speed of your target’s movement using proprietary image-processing software. For this capability, you can thank tracking algorithms reminiscent of the ones Samsung uses to track your head movements when you’re using the Galaxy S4. As long as your target doesn’t move faster than 10 miles per hour and doesn’t leave the bounds of the rifle’s image sensor, the software will track it and update the position of your red tracking dot accordingly.

During a product demo at the TechHive offices, Schauble used the XS1 PGF to lock onto targets as small as a single flower on the stem of a potted plant hanging from a nearby balcony. He concedes, however, that the PGF’s target-tracking software can be fooled by objects with similar colors and speeds—such as one white truck passing another white truck on the highway, as Schauble pointed out.

High-tech guns have their own apps

The video from the gun’s camera doesn’t just stream to your scope. It also broadcasts to other devices connected to the PGF, which creates its own wireless network. Right now, you can download Android and iOS apps that let you update firmware; remotely lock down the rifle’s advanced tracking technology with a passcode; or stream images or video from the rifle’s camera to the Internet. There’s even a mock hunting game called TrackingPoint Precision Hunter that lets you virtually tag, track, and hunt animals.

Precision Hunter is a hunting game that replicates what staring down the scope of a TrackingPoint rifle is like.

One of the most remarkable—or disconcerting—things about the PGF isn’t that it has a spinoff hunting game. It’s that building a video camera and a head-up display into a high-tech rifle can make real-life hunting look like a game. Schauble, who previously worked at Remington and helped game developers at Infinity Ward improve the realism of the guns in Call of Duty, doesn’t shy away from the comparison. “This technology makes firing a rifle more like a video game, sure, but marksmanship has always been a game,” says Schauble. “We’re just improving the experience.”

For good or evil

It’s impossible to think about the PGF without imagining how this technology could be used for evil. For their part, the folks at TrackingPoint acknowledge the dangers of selling a high-tech firearm that imbues untrained shooters with deadly, long-range accuracy. “It’s new technology, and technology can always be used for good or evil,” says Lupher. “We vet every customer that buys our product, and adhere to the letter of the law when it comes to selling firearms.”

Ultimately, the question of whether weapons should be outfitted with this kind of tracking technology is moot. TrackingPoint did it—and if it hadn’t, some other company inevitably would have. It won’t be long before other private arms manufacturers start improving on the idea, and in five or ten years the notion of owning a weapon that can’t be locked via a smartphone app may seem ridiculous. TrackingPoint is also working to adapt the technology for military applications—especially unmanned aerial drones, in hopes of building a “zero collateral damage” drone with extremely precise firing capabilities.

We can’t stop weapons technology from evolving, but we can benefit from it. The “Super Gun” project is bombastic, sure, but it also pushes the boundaries of ballistic science. To build a high-tech firearm that can hit a target 1.75 miles away with pinpoint accuracy, TrackingPoint must rigorously research and account for the precise influence that forces such as Earth’s gravitational pull and the Coriolis effect have on small objects traveling long distances.

Lupher says TrackingPoint is also investigating how to incorporate the PGF’s optical tech into more than just weapons: birdwatching binoculars that could track and identify birds, for example, or naval binoculars that could wirelessly feed orienteering data to a boat’s navigational computer. If the company succeeds in building a working “Super Gun,” it will be a bona fide scientific achievement, one that could be lead to the development of better digital rangefinders, better air-traffic control systems, and better sniper rifles.

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