A Precision Guided Firearm Powered by Linux

I’ve written a number of times about how ubiquitous Linux has become. It powers supercomputers and cell phones. It’s in automotive infotainment systems. It’s in medical equipment. It’s also now in firearms, thanks to the folks at Tracking Point.

Let me state, up front, that I am not a gun enthusiast. Although I’ve fired a few weapons through the years I’m not a hunter, and have never shot a living thing. Guns of any sort are an area of technology about which I’m largely ignorant. Any inaccuracies about Tracking Point’s products are entirely my fault. The reason I’m writing about this is because it’s an interesting way to use Linux and Free Software well outside the realm of enterprise computing, social networking, and the like.

Tracking Point was founded in 2009 by John McHale with the aim of creating a “precision guided firearm”, one that uses state of the art technology to enhance the long-range shooting experience. Accuracy is the obvious benefit from such improvements, but this brings with it a number of ancillary benefits to hunters. Improved accuracy leads to more “ethical kills,” whereby animal suffering is minimized.

According to the folks at Tracking Point, most hunters are comfortable making shots up to 200 to 300 yards. Tracking Point’s solution easily allows people to double — and sometimes triple — that range, with no additional training or effort.

The number of variables involved in making an accurate long-range shot are many and complicated. Wind speed, elevation, temperature, humidity, the curvature and rotation of the Earth, and more all factor in to where you need to aim in order to make an accurate shot. Tracking Point’s solution performs all of the necessary calculations for you and presents you with a firing solution automatically.

To make this work, Tracking Point sells a complete solution of rifle plus scope plus ammo. In order to properly calculate the best firing solution, the system needs to know what kind of rifle and round are being used.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvbyAcYjzlc&w=560&h=315]

The heart of the product lies in a Linux-powered rifle scope. This is not your typical glass scope. Instead, it’s a video recording system that runs the stream through an image processing engine and presents you with a heads-up display. On the rifle is a special button to “paint” a red dot onto your target. The image processing engine sees the dot and keeps it on your target, regardless of motion (your’s or the target’s). Squeeze the trigger to arm the rifle, and the HUD gives you an aiming reticule with a blue dot in the middle. You need to line up the target’s red dot with your HUD’s blue dot. When your HUD’s blue dot lines up correctly with the target’s red dot the rifle will fire. If the dots don’t line up, the rifle won’t fire. In essence, you can’t take a bad shot with this system.

The HUD and other user interface elements are all powered by a custom C++ application that renders to the framebuffer using OpenGL. This application is responsible for all the animations, reticules, range display, and other non-video output of the HUD. The video from the front of the scope is all handled by a custom GStreamer plugin. The whole scope runs a variant of the Ångström distribution of Linux atop a TI DaVinci 8148 processor.

All of that is amazing by itself, but Tracking Point didn’t stop there. They also bundled in a WiFi hotspot that allows the scope to stream video live to a connected smartphone or tablet. The suggested use cases for this functionality are quite interesting: instructors can literally see what a student sees through the scope, and can offer guidance on how to align their shot. Shooters can also record their shots for later review or sharing on social media sites.

Finally, the system keeps track of how many rounds it has fired. A gun’s performance characteristics change over time and through use, and the Tracking Point solution accounts for this.

Tracking Point’s offerings start at $17,500 for a complete kit of rifle and scope, plus 200 rounds of ammunition. They’re also throwing in an iPad mini so that you can enjoy their app with your new rifle. The price increases as you increase the maximum possible range. The top-of-the-line model, capable of precision shooting up to 1,200 yards away, will cost $22,500.

If you don’t want to part with that much money, you can try Tracking Point’s free iOS game Precision Hunter Lite.

What’s next for Tracking Point? Obviously military and government contracts are being explored. Advanced image processing capabilities are being explored. Imagine having the internal organs of your target overlaid on the video, so you can perfect that “ethical kill” shot? There’s also the possibility of scoring animals based on their physical characteristics: the targeting system could inform you before you shoot whether that’s a six point buck or just a four point.

There’s also work underway to automate the detection of wind speed. Currently Tracking Point requires the user to manually input wind speed, which the system then uses to calculate the best firing solution. Removing this manual step would go a long way toward automating the entire experience.

There’s no denying that Tracking Point represents a significant advancement to the capabilities of personal firearms. I’m more than a little ambivalent about the long-term ramifications of this kind of technology, though, given the continuing abuse of existing gun technology by crazy people in urban areas. The ability to stream and record scope video to a smartphone also makes me a little queasy when I think about how it might be mis-used.

But as with any advancement, the technology itself is neutral: it’s the application and use of that technology that may be good or bad. If you’re a big game hunter, Tracking Point is clearly a good thing for you.