The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is often the launchpad for new and innovative products, and this year’s show is no exception. One of the most surprising new products to be unveiled, and perhaps the most controversial of the show, is the line of “Precision Guided Firearms” from TrackingPoint. These rifles feature a Linux powered optics system which integrates a heads up display (HUD), laser range finder, trigger control mechanism, and even WiFi to help the shooter make the perfect shot.
With recent gun violence still a hot topic in the mainstream media, technology like this is too easily labeled as dangerous and unfit for civilian use. Critics would argue that such a device takes all the skill out of accurately firing a high-caliber weapon, turning anyone with the money (the TrackingPoint system currently starts at a prohibitive $17,000 USD) into a killing machine straight out of “The Terminator“.
But is that really what new technology such as this represents? Or is a product like this actually the first steps towards reducing gun violence and saving lives?
The core of TrackingPoint’s system is the scope, which provides the shooter with information such as distance to target, wind speed and direction, temperature, barometric pressure, and angle of inclination. These are all critical pieces of information when dealing with high performance weaponry firing over a long distance, as even the smallest change in the wind or air pressure can make a huge change in where your projectile will strike.
All of this information is presented to the shooter through a HUD that looks very much like what you would expect from a video game or high-tech aircraft cockpit.
While this stream of real-time information is already an incredible advantage to the serious shooter, that isn’t the extent of the TrackingPoint system. By “marking” a target within the scope, the onboard Linux computer uses image recognition routines to keep an indicator on top of the intended target. With a target acquired, the operator then holds down the trigger and moves the rifle itself until the marked target indicator and the cross-hairs line up. Then, and only then, does the weapon actually discharge.
It is important to note that, even with the TrackingPoint optical system in place, the shooter is always in complete control of the weapon. The computer is incapable of firing the weapon itself, that physical action remains the responsibility of the human operating the firearm. More importantly, the computer cannot physically move the firearm or otherwise affect the flight of the projectile, meaning that the shooter must still manually put his cross-hairs on the target, and have all the skills necessary for high accuracy shooting (steady hand, controlled breathing, etc).
Using the TrackingPoint system doesn’t allow a person without prior training to fire a weapon like a skilled operator, it just helps the skilled operator perform actions which would have previously required multiple pieces of equipment.
While TrackingPoint’s product is very impressive as it stands, the real promise of the technology is what it could evolve into over the years. If TrackingPoint can use image recognition algorithms to make sure the target a user selected is highlighted in the HUD and prevent the weapon from firing until the shot is guaranteed to hit, who is to say how far that concept could be taken in 5 or 10 years time?
Is it so far fetched to think this type of technology could one day produce a weapon that prevents firing on friendly troops on the battlefield? Or even better, will prevent the weapon from firing if it’s being pointed at a human? As optical sensors and processors become exponentially more powerful, this kind of real-time target analysis could become the standard for military and civilian weapons alike.
Of course, this is far from a new idea. The concept of the “smart gun“, a weapon that can only be discharged unless certain criteria have been met, has been bounced around for decades. Concepts range from the relatively simple detection of a passive RFID device in a ring or bracelet, to analyzing the biometrics of the person holding the weapon to determine if they are the rightful owner.
No matter the specifics, such a weapon is going to need a considerable amount of processing capability, and operate with unquestionable security and reliability.
What better then to insure reliability and security than free and open source software? If a device is going to be trusted with life or death decisions, the users should absolutely demand that its internal workings be public knowledge and available for peer review. Anything less would be irresponsible and could very well end up endangering the very lives it was designed to protect.
TrackingPoint has already taken the wise first steps in basing their product on the Linux kernel, and even the US military has begun to use Linux in its drone fleet after security issues plagued their previous Windows systems. This is certainly a positive trend, though it’s still too early to tell if the development going into these systems will truly benefit the larger community. Weapons development is notoriously secretive, and just because a company like TrackingPoint bases their system on Linux doesn’t mean they won’t be using extensive layers of proprietary closed source software on top of it.
While any sane person desires a world in which no arms would ever be taken up against others, the reality is that humanity has too ugly of a mean streak to allow for it. Until such time as our society as a whole has put aside their petty differences, weapons will be a big part of our world. If we’re stuck with them, don’t we owe it to ourselves to make sure they work in the most secure and reliable way possible?