Military Watch: A high-tech answer to sniper fire
The arrival of 60 new antisniper systems in Iraq should help U.S. troops track down the source of a small arms attack.
The Boomerang, developed by Massachusetts-based BBN Technologies, uses an array of microphones to track the sound of a bullet's shockwave and pinpoint the location of a shooter. The system was developed with a $5 million research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a military office, which is championing the system as a technological innovation that could save American lives in Iraq.
Seven microphones mounted on a guard station or a military vehicle, such as a Humvee, instantaneously calculate the backward path of a bullet, then alert the guard or gunner where the bullet was fired from, says Steve Milligan, BBN's chief technologist. "Imagine you are in a vehicle and someone is shooting at you. You want something that shouts 'shooter 2 o'clock,' " he says. "[Boomerang] tells you which way to turn and where to look."
In crowded Iraqi cities, where sound bounces and echoes off buildings, even experienced soldiers can have a hard time locating a shooter. If the Boomerang system lives up to its promise, it would eliminate suchconfusion. The system's backers in the Pentagon say it should also reduce accidental civilian casualties, by giving soldiers more-accurate information about a shooter's location.
DARPA began pushing the program vigorously in the fall of 2003, at a time when small-arms fire was the leading cause of American casualties in Iraq. Today, though, the roadside bomb is the greatest killer, and that is the focus of a variety of different technological initiatives.
Still, insurgent fire, both from poorly trained AK-47 shooters and a few more-highly-trained snipers, remains a threat.
Identifying the source of gunfire through sound has long been possible, but Karen Wood, the Boomerang program manager at DARPA, notes that there were technical problems with existing commercial systems: They did not work well in a moving vehicle, they produced too many false alarms, and they did not always work well in crowded urban areas. Part of the problem was also cost. DARPA wanted to develop an antisniper technology that was cheap enough to install on every humvee driving on the roads of Iraq. BBN has sliced the price to less than $10,000 a unit, Wood says, and the price is likely to drop further. "There were significant technical issues to solve," Wood explains. "And the BBN contractors were very good at solving them."
The military has tested prototypes of the second-generation antisniper technology and is now testing the latest version in Army and Marine units. BBN officials say the latest version is ready for production if they get the green light from the services. The Marines have conducted a test of the DARPA-backed Boomerang and some other commercial systems. Though the final report has not been released, both BBN officials and Woods said the Boomerang system did well against the other off-the-shelf commercial systems and successfully identified the location of snipers. Wood said with the deployment of the latest batch of boomerangs, DARPA's role is finished. "We've solved the technical challenges," she said. "Now it is up to the Army."
And the Pentagon's bureaucracy. Typically, the military's "procurement process" is not set up to quickly purchase and deploy new technology, says Tad Elmer, BBN's chief executive officer. But BBN officials hope the field-testing creates a grassroots demand that the Pentagoncannot resist.