LONDON — Put simple gunshot locaters on a soldier’s shoulder or rifle and he can get the bearing, range and elevation to an enemy who is shooting at him. But network several of those soldiers’ sensors together, say the companies that manufacture them, and you could get a low-cost system that pinpoints those targets for air or artillery strikes.
Acoustic sensors have been on the battlefield for the better part of a century, but recent advances in the miniaturization of electronics and some clever work by algorithm scientists and others has shrunk gunfire-location systems enough that individual soldiers can carry them. The data they produce — including relative and absolute shooter location — is available only to the soldier carrying the gear and others in his immediate battlefield patrol. But industry executives leading the development of these protection systems said the data could easily be fed into the wider command-and-control network.
“We can do this whenever people want us to,” said Mark Sherman, the general manager of Raytheon BBN Technologies’ Boomerang program. “We have done it before on the U.S. military’s FBCB2, but not implemented it.”
Sherman said the main hurdle in putting the data on a network is not a matter of technology but of policy.
“Once you put that kind of information onto a network, it becomes classified, and so even if you are standing just a few meters from another soldier, your location information is classified,” he said. “We are, though, just the sensor, so protecting it [the information] and classifying it is someone else’s issue.”
The U.S. alone has purchased thousands of gunfire location systems for dismounted soldiers and other government operatives, principally for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other nations also are either buying the technology or looking at doing so. Sherman said the market is directly correlated to whether a nation’s armed forces are getting shot at.
Whatever the effect on sales of NATO’s drawdown of combat troops in Afghanistan, Sherman said demonstrations were going on “pretty much all over the world.”
Today’s systems typically weigh in at around 11 ounces, but industry executives say further miniaturizing efforts can cut the weight substantially.
Performance and capabilities vary slightly among products, but suppliers typically say threats can be detected in under a second with an accuracy of 5 degrees in bearing and elevation and an accuracy of 11 percent in range. Output from more than one sensor in a squad or platoon increases the accuracy and refines the bearing still further, executives said.
Andrew Rogers, the senior vice president at QinetiQ North America’s Technology Solutions Group, said they had tested their system out to 1,000 meters with good results; most riflemen engage targets between 200 and 400 meters away.
Larger and more sophisticated acoustic gunfire locators are also regularly seen mounted on vehicles and in forward operating bases and other vulnerable sites.
The two principal suppliers of gunfire detection systems are Raytheon, with its Boomerang family, and QinetiQ North America, with the Shoulder-Worn Acoustic Targeting System, or SWATS.
Both companies offer a shoulder-mounted sensor linked by a cable to a wrist-mounted display showing the range, bearing and, in Boomerang’s case, elevation of the origin of gunfire. Soldiers also get an audio cue that they are being fired upon.
In Europe, Ultra Electronics and Metravib have taken a different approach: putting the sensor and display on the soldier’s rifle. To date, the market preference has been strongly in favor of the shoulder-mounted systems.
Britain’s Ultra recently adapted its system to meet a U.K. urgent operational requirement for a shoulder-worn system to be supplied to troops fighting in Afghanistan, but the Ministry of Defence axed the program before a contractor was selected.
QNA’s Rogers said his company’s engineers had packed a lot of technology into a small space, giving the system a potentially wider use beyond gunfire location and networking.
“You would be surprised how much capability is in one of our systems already: GPS, INS [inertial navigation system] compass, serial interfaces and other technologies,” he said.
Mark Merrifield, strategy director at Ultra Electronics Sonar Systems, said with GPS, you “know where you are on a map. With range, bearing and elevation, you can put a point on a map, saying ‘I was shot at from there,’ stick that on a topographic map and transmit it wherever you want. Pilots or artillery can come in and do their strike.”
The GPS and INS work together to ensure that when a soldier moves or takes cover, the new position is recalibrated based on your location and heading all the time, said J.D. Crouch, who leads QNA’s Technology Solutions Group.
The system’s usefulness goes beyond locating gunfire.
“There are a lot of interesting things you can do with these systems after mitigating the immediate tactical issue of being shot at,” Crouch said.
He said they can record the direction of several hundred shots for later retrieval.
“One way it will help is to provide data about what happened on the battlefield forensically,” he said. “There is a lot of data available, and it’s just a matter of imagination on how it gets used.”
Crouch said QNA is working on systems that tie such data together between individual soldiers and with other sensors.
Ultra’s Merrifield said the company had already attached its system, known as the Personnel Gunfire Locator, to a tripod-mounted thermal imaging system produced by a Turkish company for countering hostile fire.
Another role being pursued by the companies is using the acoustics system to slew video camera systems for base-protection or public/police applications.
Several of the companies have been experimenting with smartphone technology for various applications involving the gunfire locator.
Sherman said Raytheon had Boomerang “displaying on an Android phone two years ago but never pursued it, as it seemed too hard to sell.”
That may not always be the case, though. Today, you don’t normally know whether the acoustic locator is triggered by hostile or friendly forces.
QNA’s Crouch said, “You can imagine a smartphone screen that had a Blue Force Tracker on it and it would provide that kind of data on the screen so that you can determine if it’s friendly fire. Even if the shooters are friendly, you need to know whether you are being shot at and from where.”