April 25, 2007:
Sniper detectors are still a work
in progress. The acoustic detectors have had the most success, and over 500 of
them have been shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan. Sniper detection systems provide
directional information about where the snipers are. Several generations of
these systems have showed up over the last three years. The usefulness of these
anti-sniper systems has increased as the manufacturers have decreased the
number of false alarms, and improved the user interface. There other reasons
for all this progress, including major advances in computing power, sensor
quality and software development. The latest improvement is providing nearly
instant, and easy to comprehend, location info on the sniper.
Not all the manufacturers are American. The French
firm Metravib, has been turning out several generations of their Pilar system,
since the 1990s. This is a high end system, costing about $70,000. That gets
you the acoustic array, a laptop size device containing the signal processor
(specialized computer) and a laptop that displays the results, and controls the
system. Pilar has recently received a companion system, Pivot, which will
automatically point a camera at the source of the fire, and display the video
wherever it is needed. Pivot costs $200,000, and could substitute a machine-gun
for the camera. But no one wants to go there just yet.
The U.S. firm, iRobot, which makes the most widely
used combat robot, the PackBot, has developed a similar system. Called REDOWL
(for Robot Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers), it mounts a 5.5 pound
device on a PackBot that contains an infrared (heat sensing) video camera,
laser rangefinder and acoustic gunfire detector. When the device is turned on, the
camera and laser will point to any gunshot in the area. This makes it a lot
easier for nearby troops to take out the sniper. REDOWL can also be mounted on
vehicles, or anywhere, for that matter. In tests, REDOWL has been right 94
percent of the time. Some developers suggested equipping REDOWL with a
machine-gun in place of the laser. But the U.S. Army isn't ready for an armed robot that will identify and
fire on targets all by itself. Pilar has one edge over REDOWL, longer range.
Pilar can find snipers who are as far as a thousand meters out, about twice the
range of the iRobot system.
Israel has produced a similar system, SADS (Small
Arms Detection System), that also has a thousand meter range. On the low end of
the cost scale, there is the U.S. Boomerang system. This one has been around
for several years, costs about $5,000 each, and has been effective enough to
get new orders and lots of work from troops that are used to it.
For decades, sniper detectors were theoretical
darlings of military R&D geeks. But now, with lots of need, better
technology and money to buy several generations of a system, the devices are
actually making themselves useful. Not all units have officers or troops who
can make the most of sniper detection systems. But those that do, are hell on
the local sniper population.