Archive for the ‘Consumer Electronics’ Category

For C. Reed Knight, Jr., the founder and CEO of Knight’s Armament Corporation, the future of small arms is not in “bullets and gunpowder.”

“The improvement in small arms has been in target acquisition and the interface between the human and the weapon itself,” said Mr. Knight. The company’s latest product takes this notion a step further—with a touch interface.

Knight’s Armament has developed a new program for the iPod Touch and iPhone called BulletFlight, which hopes to transform Apple’s ubiquitous music player into the must-have accessory for snipers who engage targets at extreme distances where variables such as muzzle velocity, angle of the shot, distance, altitude, and air temperature determine the bullet’s trajectory and eventual point of impact.

Traditionally, these expert marksmen use hardcopy ballistics tables to account for these factors and make the appropriate adjustments to their optics in each situation. The slightest miscalculation could mean failure and put the sniper’s life and possibly others’ lives in jeopardy. Computers have eased these calculations, but until recently their use in the field has been limited.

BulletFlight, available from the Apple App Store for $11.99, takes many of the features and flexibility of a full-fledged ballistic program and places it in the form factor of an iPod Touch.

“There’s over 40 million iPhone or iPod devices already in circulation, and it has excellent performance characteristics,” says Rob Silvers, the MIT-educated developer of BulletFlight. “It’s very small. It has a fast compute time. It has a large screen, and it has a good touch screen interface. It makes it a good platform to develop on and good one for users. Obviously, people like the device because so many of them sold and for the same reason soldiers will want to have one and use it for this purpose.”

The challenge for Silvers was to create a program that simplified the sniper’s task.

“Most ballistic computer programs give a tabular output and that might be fine for printing a card and taping it onto your rifle and bringing it to the range, because when you have a piece of paper and not computer you need a table and all your answers there,” says Mr. Silvers. “If you can bring a computer along with you, you don’t want to overload the operator with information that’s not relevant so what we did was give a specific solution.”

The program comes preloaded with data for several weapons including KAC’s M110 7.62x51mm semiautomatic sniper rifle in use with the U. S. Army. However, the user can input data for additional weapons, optics, and ammunition via the touch display. For any weapon system, an operator can specify parameters such as muzzle velocity, zero range, sight height above the bore, how many MOA one click of the scope changes the impact (both horizontal and vertical), bullet weight, and up to five ballistic coefficients according to the Sierra model of exterior ballistics.

(According to some data, ballistic coefficient changes at different velocity thresholds. With BulletFlight, the user can specify different velocities and what the ballistic coefficient is at those velocities and that gives a much more accurate result than programs that only allow for a single ballistic coefficient.)

When it comes time to shoot, the operator chooses a weapon profile and has one of two options: “Calculate Ballistics” and “Calculate Simple.” The first option gives the user the flexibility to change distance, temperature, pressure, shot angle, wind speed and angle, and altitude. The angle of the shot is easily determined via the iPod Touch’s accelerometer. BulletFlight allows both metric and imperial input without having to change an option or flip through multiple screens. Both fields are available at the same time, and changing one field updates the other. The second option gives the user a simple range wheel to specify the distance to target alone for quick adjustments.  In either case, BulletFlight tells the operator not only the holdover but also the exact MOA adjustments for the sniper’s scope as well as time in flight and energy at impact. The rest is left to the marksman.

Calculate Ballistics

Calculate Ballistics

Calculate Simple

Calculate Simple

“[BulletFlight] has been compared to some ballistic programs that the military uses,” Mr. Silvers said. “There’s an excellent one called QuickLoad, which is a program for the PC, and the output at 2,000 meters was within a half an inch of that full-fledged program, so it’s been verified in that sense.”

One alternative to the BulletFlight-iPod tandem is the Barrett Optical Ranging System (BORS). Not only does this system detect angle like the iPod Touch, it also senses temperature and atmospheric pressure. The device is rugged, but it requires a PC to add custom loads and proprietary rings, which are not compatible with many scopes. More importantly, the device carries a much heftier price tag, retailing for $1500 by itself or $2700 with a compatible Leupold scope.

Are these additional features of the BORS worth the additional expense? This decision is best left to the snipers themselves, but Knight’s does not believe the iPod is at a significant disadvantage.

“It turns out that atmospheric conditions like temperature don’t affect the result by very large amounts, so it is acceptable to approximate those. If it feels like 100 degrees, you don’t have to worry that it is 104 degrees,” said Mr. Silvers.

Knight’s has developed a prototype mount for the iPod Touch, which it unveiled at SHOT Show. The mount uses a rugged Otterbox case and attaches to any military-spec rail system, but it is not necessary for the system. Testing is ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether the iPod Touch will withstand the recoil of prolonged firing and the harsh conditions of the battlefield.

Prototype Mount

KAC's Prototype Mount

What has been surprising is the reaction from the blogosphere. While receiving a warm reception from civilian and military marksmen, others have struggled to understand its intended purpose.  Andy Dawson of Bitter Wallet had this to say:

Once downloaded, BulletFlight will operate after you attach your iPhone or Touch to the side of your sniper rifle. Then, simply input details about wind conditions, type of ammunition, distance from target etc, and the program will then… will then… well, what exactly?

The same goes for CNET blogger Chris Matyszczyk who quipped, “Perhaps you’ll also be able to tell me whether there is a way to attach my iPod touch to a golf club. I need to make my 5-iron just a little more accurate.”

Comments such as these can be dismissed as ignorance of long-range marksmanship and the role of the sniper, but more interesting is the almost irrational response that the conjunction of sniping and the iPod elicits.

David Flynn of APC claimed, “So as an aspiring iPhone developer, what’s a good way to cash in on all this [inauguration] hoopla? Of course — it’s to release your uber-realistic sniper app on the day of Obama’s inauguration. Poor taste, indeed.” However, Lynch’s hysterics are unwarranted. The application was released on the Apple App Store on December 22 and in development for much longer. More to the point, it is Flynn himself who “cashes in” on the hoopla for some cheap hits on his blog.

Gizmag was marginally more measured in its response. The blogger writes, “You can also download different weapon and ammunition profiles (it comes with three) and even subscribe to highly detailed weather and forecast information, not to mention listen to music whilst you await your quarry. BTW – this scares us to death!”  One can debate the merits of civilian firearms ownership, but the fact that the weaponized iPod  frightens people is a fascinating cultural response.  Given that there is no such outcry with the BORS system, it must be the repurposing of the iPod that disturbs people. Here, people are reacting not to technology but its context.

Even noteworthy foreign policy expert and author Thomas E. Ricks offered a cynical take on the device.  He remarks, “I am not sure what to make of this. Except, what a country.”  Certainly, Ricks must not be condemning the sniper or the trigonometry that underlies any ballistic calculator.  Is the chart a soldier tapes to his rifle so much less threatening?  Does the novel use of an iPod as a cost effective alternative to other military systems warrant the condemnation of America?  One can infer from Ricks’ comments that it is the blurring of consumer and military technologies more than anything else that triggers this negative response. However, this is by no means a new or unfamiliar phenomenon.

Ultimately, Knight’s Armament Company’s BulletFlight software provides snipers a useful and cost-effective tool at a time when changing attitudes within the Pentagon and the downturn in the economy have curtailed defense spending.  Meanwhile, this clever repurposing of the iPod will go on challenging our perceptions of technology–not to mention redefining the phrase “user-friendly.”

Knight’s Armament anticipates a major upgrade to the program soon.  For more information, check the BulletFlight product site.


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Noah Shachtman at Danger Room continues to report on the usage of consumer technologies in the increasingly sophisticated “infowar” between the Israelis and Palestinians:

Getting tweets from the war zone is so 2008. The latest social media advance combines tools like Twitter, text messaging, and online mapping to gather up first-hand reports, straight from Gaza.

The effort, from Al Jazeera Labs, just got started; the reporting is still spotty, and the technology is very much in the testing phase. But the idea is for residents of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank to send quick updates about the conflict from their computers or mobile phones, through SMS or Twitter. The results are then verified, and posted to a Microsoft Virtual Earth map.

For continuing developments, be sure to follow Danger Room. If you have subscribed to their feed already, you should posthaste. Noah Schachtman, David Axe, and company are the bee’s knees.

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Here is an interesting story from Noah Shachtman at Danger Room:

Nobody likes getting cell phone messages from strange callers. Especially not when the callers say they’re about to level your house.

But residents of Gaza say those are exactly the kind of messages they’re getting from the Israel Defense Forces.

According to Ha’Aretz, “Palestinians reported that in some cases, the caller leaves a message on their voice mail warning that the IDF will bomb any house where weapons are rockets are found and the owners of the houses will be the ones to suffer the consequences.”


During the 2006 war with Hezbollah, Israelis used text messages to warn residents of incoming rockets. Last week, as the airstrikes against Hamas began, “thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language cell-phone messages from the Israeli military, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons,” according to the AP.

And the Israelis aren’t the only ones trying to use cell phones as a military advantage. Hamas has been sending Hebrew-language text messages to Israelis’ phones, warning them that “all cities” will be threatened by the terror group’s rocket attacks.

Be sure to check out the original post for the great image accompanying Shachtman’s story.

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Sharon Weinberger at Danger Room has found another gem, “Blackwater mixes business glitz with military grit (AP).” Labeled by some as mere “mercenaries,” Blackwater Worldwide has made a name for itself as a security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan attracting both positive and negative attention. The company intends to expand upon its present services–plans which may include developing a high-tech “care package” for American soldiers serving in Afghanistan:

Blackwater recruiter James Overton is working on packing a Microsoft Xbox video-game console, modem, TV projector and “Guitar Hero” video game into a kit that can be kicked out of a Blackwater cargo plane and dropped to troops in Afghanistan.

“When I was in Baghdad, we’d bring soldiers over to our camp over there, and we’d play this thing for hours on end,” Overton said. “Every (military) place I’ve ever been to overseas, they’ve got like backgammon and Parcheesi and chess, and they’re all gathering dust. But this is the stuff they play at home. And any semblance of home we can give them is best.”

Blackwater has been a popular target for critics of the war who point to the company as the worst kind of war profiteering.  (Among them is presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama who reportedly contracted Blackwater for security on his recent tour of Iraq and Afghanistan.) Despite the negativity towards the company today, the article makes the case for some of the creative and cost-efficient ways private enterprise can support the military, diplomatic, and humanitarian goals.

Among its other missions, Blackwater enjoys a reputation for some of the best small arms training in the United States, catering to military, law enforcement, and civilian clients.  In one photographs included with the article, one of Blackwater’s instructors stands with his M4A1-type rifle. This image shows many of the small but notable companies at the forefront of small arms design:

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The rifle’s pistol grip and vertical foregrip (VFG) are products of TangoDown, a California-based company whose products have found favor with military and law enforcement.  (“Tango down” is an expression to indicate a target–read “enemy combatant”–has been killed.)  LaRue Tactical, located in Texas, manufactures the rear sight and optics mount on the rifle, which have become popular due to their “quick-detach” design. The rifle’s magazine is another new design, developed by Magpul Industries, addressing a weak point for the M16 family of rifles. (Cultural critics and patriotic souls alike will enjoy–for different reasons, perhaps–the interplay of photography, quotations, and the occasional sardonic remark on Magpul’s website.)  While their names might be as familiar as larger arms contractors, these companies have used new materials and designs to augment existing weapon systems in very significant ways, making a substatial mark in small arms design and practice.

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According to BBC News, Sri Lanka’s Defense Ministry has stepped its recruiting in an effort to end the fighting that has plagued the nation since 1983. The war has had a high cost for both sides, and estimates range from 70,000 killed to 215,000 or more. Recently, the government’s recruiting drive has leveraged cell phones:

Not long ago the Defence Ministry sent out a text message to mobile phones nationwide.

“Young Patriots,” it read. “Come join with our armed forces and be a part of a winning team.”

Cell phones continue to have a growing role in international conflicts.  In Tim Stevens’ post “Al-Qaeda Cell(phones) in Jerusalem, Al-Qaeda agents used cell phones to video tape a helipad in conjunction with a plot to assassinate US President George W. Bush. Parallel to this trend, cell phone use has sky-rocketed worldwide. According to The Dark Visitor, now one-in-two people in China own a cell phone. It is a phenomenon occuring even in rural areas where traditional landlines have met infrastructure problems.

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Courtesy of Open GPS Tracker

Yesterday, Hackzine reported on the The Open GPS Tracker, “a small device which plugs into a $20 prepaid mobile phone to make a GPS tracker. The Tracker responds to text message commands, detects motion, and sends you its exact position, ready for Google Maps or your mapping software.” The project homepage lists a very impressive feature list including the following:

  • SiRFstar III receiver gets a fix inside most buildings.
  • Sends latitude, longitude, altitude, speed, course, date, and time.
  • Sends to any SMS-capable mobile phone, or any email address.
  • Battery life up to 14 days, limited by mobile phone. Longer life possible with external batteries
  • Manual locate and automatic tracking modes controlled via text message.
  • Automatic tracking mode sends location when the tracker starts moving,
    when it stops moving, and at programmable intervals while moving.
  • Alerts when user-set speed limit is exceeded.
  • Retains tracking messages if out of coverage, and sends when back in coverage.
  • Retains and reports last good fix if it loses GPS coverage.
  • Remote reporting of mobile phone battery and signal status.
  • Extended runtime mode switches phone on and off to save battery life.

There are a number of interesting applications including keeping track of your children’s driving habits or, as Hackzine notes, creating a “‘lo-jack’ system that would let you find your car if it was stolen, only with this your car’s location is only being reported to you instead of a monitoring station, actually increasing your privacy.” However, there are a number of more nefarious uses this device could have. As has been widely reported, cellular phones have been used for the remote detonation of IEDs in Iraq and elsewhere. This device could be used in conjunction with a vehicle-borne IED in which the driver is not privy to the attack. Also, it could also be used as a covert listening device, or “bug,” with the appropriate modifications. The possibilities are endless.

By no means does this discredit the Open GPS Tracker project. These type of “hacks”–creative repurposing of technology–are only as good or evil as their users, and projects such as this one should be encouraged. However, it is important to note that as consumer electronics become more sophisticated their capability to be weaponized grows.

Here are some more pictures from the project:

Courtesy of Open GPS TrackerCourtesy of Open GPS Tracker

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