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Military firearms are a simple extension of previous technology; first we threw rocks. Then we used slings to send them further. We developed bows and arrows to deliver more force. Then we harnessed fire to make the first guns. Technology is ushering in the next phase, and it’s fascinating.

Smart Guns

In the long-running debate about gun control legislation (which I will not take part in here), guns have been characterized as “dumb” tools. They simply do what they are told. But as with smart lamps Brighten Your Home With Smart Lamps: Here Are Your Options Brighten Your Home With Smart Lamps: Here Are Your Options What exactly is a smart lamp, and what's out there? Read More , smart TVs What Is a Smart TV & 6 of the Best On The Market Today What Is a Smart TV & 6 of the Best On The Market Today Most televisions you look at now will be smart TVs, but what is a smart TV and which ones are the best on the market right now? Read More , and smart cars, technology is making guns a lot more intelligent.

Take TrackingPoint, for example; the Austin-based company builds rifles that use scopes powered by the Angstrom Linux distribution to increase accuracy out to 1,000 yards by performing complex ballistic calculations. The scopes make shooting a gun more like a first-person shooter video game 5 Highly Tactical Shooters That Are Worth Your Time 5 Highly Tactical Shooters That Are Worth Your Time Here are five shooters perfect for a squad of friends that want to test their mind as well as their trigger-finger. Read More ; targets can be tagged by the scope and will be followed by a red dot; after the trigger is pulled, the gun will fire when the scope’s crosshair and the dot are aligned.

The scope takes environmental and ballistic factors into account when calculating the trajectory of the bullet, making each shot significantly more accurate than traditional human-aimed shots. Because ballistic factors are used to predict the path of the bullet, certain ammunition must be used with the TrackingPoint guns to ensure that all of the properties of the bullets are known.

While TrackingPoint is currently building guns mostly for hunters and gun aficionados with expensive tastes (the magnum rifles start at $22,500), they are doing some work with the US military, which has already started deploying another smart weapon, the XM-25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement system.

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The XM-25 fires 25mm explosive shells with high accuracy up to 500 meters and “area effect” to 700. A laser rangefinder, a powerful computer-enhanced scope, and the ability to select the detonation range of the shells contributed to the XM-25’s nickname of “the Punisher.”

xm-25-punisher-gun

The weapon has proven to be very effective in supporting troops that are pinned down by enemy machine gun fire, as the shells can be set to explode once they fly over an enemy’s cover. The capability of the launcher to provide airbursts like this sets it apart from conventional weapons, and puts it in a new class; something like highly portable artillery.

Of course, DARPA’s interest in futuristic technology You Won't Believe It: DARPA Future Research Into Advanced Computers You Won't Believe It: DARPA Future Research Into Advanced Computers DARPA is one of the most fascinating and secretive parts of the US government. The following are some of DARPA's most advanced projects that promise to transform the world of technology. Read More means it’s heavily involved in the mashup between computers and guns. The One Shot XG system was developed to give snipers a better idea of wind conditions between them and their targets; when you’re a mile or more away from your target, taking a wind measurement from where you are located isn’t enough. To be accurate at this range, the One Shot XG scope uses lasers to gauge crosswinds between the sniper and the target, helping a shooter compensate for winds of over 30 mph.

Not impressed yet? DARPA has also developed a .50 caliber sniper bullet that can make course corrections mid-flight. The video below shows an accurately fired round and a follow-up round, intentionally aimed away from the target.

Pretty cool, huh? While it’s not clear how the bullet “steers,” an image posted on the DARPA site doesn’t look like it has any sort of fin, which was used on Sandia National’s similar guided bullet back in 2012. Don’t expect many details on this to be released any time soon.

REALLY Smart Guns

If you’ve watched any of the Terminator movies, or played futuristic first-person shooters, you’ve probably given a bit of thought to the idea of autonomous, militarized robots. You might be surprised to find out that it’s not just science fiction—military robots are already in use.

In March, Russia announced that they’d be deploying tracked robots to defend a number of their missile bases; these robots are armed with 12.7-mm heavy machine guns, and can engage targets without any human intervention (unlike current US military drones, which required an actual person to pull the trigger).

While the US has deployed remotely operated robots for bomb disposal, the military has been quite reluctant to use armed robots in this way, though at least two have been tested (the SWORDS and MAARS models). Although they’ve been used in the field, they’ve always been quite restricted; they’re remotely operated, and generally used as stationary emplacements.

swords-robot

However, it seems likely that the US will eventually join Russia and other countries in building fully autonomous weapons platforms, despite UN debate over whether or not robots should be banned from combat. But with DARPA’s annual Robotics Challenge, it’s clear that the U.S. military is interested in further developing the field of robotics for its own ends.

While it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing humanoid robots patrolling army bases or replacing soldiers 6 Human Jobs That Computers Will Never Replace 6 Human Jobs That Computers Will Never Replace Read More anytime soon, the high-profile deployment by Russia does make US and international deployment of autonomous lethal robots seem inevitable.

Guns of the Future

Military technology is a lucrative business, and we’ll continue to see a huge amount of innovation within the next several decades. There’s no telling what we’ll see next: sniper rifles that are smart enough to be left on a ridge and take out their targets days later? Fire-and-forget bullets? Motion-detector-triggered machine guns? Science-fiction-like robot soldiers?

It’s difficult to know, and the implications of current levels of military technology are staggering. While this might be very worrying from an ethical perspective, there’s no denying that the technology itself is really exciting.

What do you think about these types of futuristic weapons? Are these advances beneficial for mankind? Or do they just make us more efficient killing machines? What about the technology? Where might it trickle down in the future? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons, Devon Fyson via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Repeal the Second
    September 21, 2014 at 2:32 am

    Dollars to "donuts" the racist pig cops in Ferguson, MO will get facial recognition guns that allows them to identify targets with a particular melanin level in the skin. I shudder to think how these 21st century weapons could have been used with a nut like George Wallace or Nixon pulling the (political) trigger. We are just too aggressive and militant a society for anyone to be trusted with these killing machines. Shut down the NRA, repeal the second amendment and destroy the factories and the supply. We need national disarmament and peace, not a culture of murder, violence, and hate.

  2. Saikat B
    September 6, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    We are also talking of biometric guns. They are already here. I wonder how difficult (or easy) is it to remove the sensor chip? In other words -- hack it!

    Smart technology to stop gun proliferation should be the immediate area of research. It will at least help to reduce the senseless deaths that occur even in the town of the developed world.

    There are initiatives like the "http://www.smarttechfoundation.org/" that are trying to do something about it.

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 4:09 pm

      I've wondered that about biometric guns, too. I haven't done any research, but it would be interesting to find out. I also agree that smart technology to stop gun proliferation would be great!

      I looked at the Smart Tech Fondation, and it sounds like a really great organization. I only glanced at the site, so I didn't see any details on what they were doing, but it's something I'd like to keep an eye on in the future. Thanks for sharing the link!

  3. KT
    September 6, 2014 at 1:03 am

    Great articles bring out great emotions, but I like math:

    The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in the United States is 270,000,0001 to 310,000,000

    In the United States, annual deaths resulting from firearms total 2011: 32,163 (17,000 were suicides).

    Long gun homicides (the technology discussed applies only to these) 2011: 694

    So for the people calling long gun owners idiots, you're kind of right. 694 long gun idiots out of 310,000,000. In perspective, the FDA says you can safely eat a much higher percent than that of rat feces in your food. Obesity from fast food takes down way more Americans than that. Alcohol, tobacco, cars, animal attacks, all have a much higher death toll than that. I can't defend handgun violence from urban youth though, that is a real problem of idiots with guns!

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 7:00 am

      You make an interesting point here. There is quite a difference between handguns and long guns, and the technologies discussed here are primarily geared toward long guns (as there's more of a market for hunting and military use, I would assume). I'm not sure what sorts of smart technologies people are working on for use in handguns. I think I remember seeing something about guns that can only be unlocked by their registered users; not sure how that works, but it sounds very Judge Dredd. Could be useful in some situations, harmful in others.

  4. Anon
    September 5, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    Guns will only be "smart" when the gun itself can determine a worthy target. As soon as it detects innocent targets it should prevent engagement, i.e. peaceful marches, school grounds, unarmed people, etc. God knows, the person behind the trigger, be it physically or remotely, will always be an idiot.

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 6:58 am

      Unfortunately, I think that's something that will stay in science fiction for . . . well, probably forever. Even if we were able to develop that kind of technology, I feel like it would never be trusted enough to be put into use. I suppose you could maybe make a smart scope that could differentiate between humans and animals; that would be something! The potential for mistakes is pretty scary, though.

  5. Db
    September 5, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    More guns with trained people behind them is a good thing...this will inspire many to educate themselves about firearms eventually leading them to continued training & ownership. If you have not yet had the experience of a firearm, go...they are not scary.

  6. dragonmouth
    September 5, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    Looks like pretty soon Keith Laumer's BOLOs will become reality and then we'll face Fred Saberhagen's Berserkers. What a future to aspire to. Sheesh!

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 6:56 am

      I had to look those up, but I can definitely see how this article brought them to mind! I'm going to have to read some Laumer and Saberhagen. Sounds really good.

      On a very tangentially related note, did you know that the word 'berserker' comes from the Old Norse 'berserkr', which means 'bear shirt'? Evidently many of their biggest, baddest warriors wore shirts made of bear pelts. (Went to the Vikings exhibit at the British Museum not too long ago, and was fascinated by that etymological fact.)

    • dragonmouth
      September 6, 2014 at 12:49 pm

      When I first read about BOLOs in the 1960's and 1970's they were pretty much the stuff of science fiction. Today, with all the UAVs, drones and special purpose robots the military uses, I expect the announcement of a BOLO any day now.

  7. KT
    September 5, 2014 at 10:42 pm

    Awesome article!
    I can't wait for the technology to mature and prices come down. The thought of putting an open source smart scope on my old $94 dollar Mosin Nagant that fires cheap but very powerful ammo is enticing indeed. (I know the very nature of gun talk is polarizing, but it is a great way to spend a day with the wife at a safe outdoor setting).

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 6:48 am

      I would imagine that TrackingPoint is trying hard to get the cost of their products down. While they cater to a specific high-end market right now, I'm sure they would benefit by having customers like you be able to buy a smart scope. Though the scope needs very specific ammo so it knows the exact ballistics, and it seems to me like that will be a requirement for a long time.

      What do you think your limit would be? How much would you be willing to pay for something like the TrackingPoint system?

    • dragonmouth
      September 6, 2014 at 12:43 pm

      It is interesting that TrackingPoint guns require special ammo. One would think that since the gun already has a computer built in, it would be easy for the computer to sense the physical attributes of the ammo and make the necessary adjustments.

    • KT
      September 6, 2014 at 12:46 pm

      I think a scaled down version with just the basics that offer improved sighting, but not all the bells and whistles in the $2,000 range would sell pretty well.

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 3:59 pm

      dragonmouth, I would imagine that to sense the physical attribute of the ammo, it would have to have a lot of sensors in place inside the chamber, or in the clip, which would probably be very difficult. And expensive. That would be my guess, anyway.

      But who knows? Maybe they'll eventually be able to get the scope to calibrate to the flight characteristics after a couple shots. That'd be pretty cool.

    • memilanuk
      September 7, 2014 at 2:03 am

      Dragonmouth,

      Telling what individual components are being used in a given round of ammo can be very difficult even for experienced shooters unless detailed notes are kept. Different brands of components, different production lots, etc can all stack up in ways that can significantly affect the accuracy of ammunition used for long range shooting. How a machine would even begin to be able to sense a difference between a regular primer and a magnum one is beyond me.

      What may be more likely is to add this ability to field calibrate the system based on test firing, possibly with a real-time integral chronograph built into the barrel, and tune the system accordingly on the fly.

    • Dann A
      September 9, 2014 at 8:37 am

      memilanuk, that is exactly what I was trying to say. Though you did it with much more finesse. :-)

  8. Allan
    September 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Does this mean that some guns will actually be smarter than the one pointing it?

    • Dann A
      September 6, 2014 at 6:46 am

      Well, that depends on how you measure the intelligence of a machine. At least with the technologies that we're talking about here, I'd say no. What these technologies exist to do, basically, is make it easier to do something that's hard—calculating bullet trajectories, shooting behind cover, and solving a manpower problem. In terms of general intelligence, these guns are still pretty dumb. When it comes to physics and ballistics, though, they're pretty smart.

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