Infantry: Electronic Ears


February 21, 2008: Sniper detectors are still a work in progress, but a British firm believes it has the best solution so far. And that would be an individual system, worn by a soldier, and giving immediate direction and distance location via audible cues. The soldier wears the sensors on his vest, and the brains of the system is a small, PDA size device weighing 6.4 ounces. Tests in Afghanistan late last year proved that the system worked in action. The question now is will it work well enough for a lot of infantry to carry it around. While sniper detectors have been popular with non-combat troops, particularly those guarding bases, infantry still often find their own ears and experience superior to the electronic detectors. The wearable device, called SWATs (Soldier Wearable Acoustic Targeting systems) or "ears", was designed with the infantry in mind, and also to save convoy guards the 200 or so pounds of cargo weight (plus bulk) that current systems impose. "Ears" has been able to detect snipers from vehicles travelling up to 80 kilometers an hour.

The acoustic sniper detectors, which have been in the field for nearly a decade, have had some success. 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 four 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. British firm QinetiQ developed SWATs, as well as a more traditional, non-wearable version. 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, 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.




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