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Auto-targeting technology to reduce 'aim error' in crew-served weapons

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (May 25, 2017) -- Soldiers may now pride themselves on being a good shot, on scoring high in marksmanship, but one day that may not be as important as it is now.

Earlier this month, during "Lab Day" at the Pentagon, Terence Rice, a researcher with the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center out of Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, demonstrated an engineering model of what one day might make it into the field for Soldiers.

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What Rice had on display was a plastic M4 rifle replica that was cradled inside a larger, rifle-like shell. A lot of Soldiers and Marines had gathered around his tent in the Pentagon courtyard to hear what he had to say.

"We're trying to attack the problem of aim error. When you want to hit a target, you have to take into account the weapon, the ammo, the environments and the shooter," Rice said. "And given the fact that we're using sensors, computers and hardware ... we can engage targets faster now. What this concept does is reduce aim error and engage targets quicker."

What Rice was demonstrating was technology that automatically aimed the M4 rifle at the target, so Soldiers could be a more effective shooter without actually being a good aim. A series of sensors and motors in the outer shell that held the M4 were responsible for moving the rifle around and keeping it pointed at the target.

All the Soldier had to do was aim the entire setup in the general direction of a target. The motors and sensors took care of making sure the M4 was accurately aimed, so that any bullets fired by the Soldier would hit their target.

The engineering model was heavy, and it's certainly not ready for prime time, Rice said.

"This is just a prototype demonstrator. It's not meant to be a fielded-type system," he said. "But we want to get the concepts to folks to say, hey we have the ability to make computers smaller and faster nowadays, so embed this in a weapons system and see what we can do with it. So what we are doing here is using this system to find a target, engage that target and always be on that target at all times, whether you are standing prone, or moving, or in a vehicle, or a helicopter."

While what Rice was demonstrating for individual weapons might be years away, that's not the case for larger, crew-served weapons, such as what may be found on a boat or off the top of a Stryker combat vehicle, for instance.

"What we are looking for is to apply this more in a crew-served, or a vehicle, or a helicopter-type system, because you have the real estate in there, you have ability for more computing power and for more constant power," he said.

Rice had a video on display that showed a person on a platform aiming a crew-served weapon at targets being projected on a screen. The platform moved back and forth as if on hydraulics. It was meant to simulate how a sailor, for instance, might aim a weapon while standing onboard a rocking boat.

"That's a simulation of firing off of a boat, and trying to keep it steady and on target," Rice said. "It's very difficult when you are going up and down."

But in the demonstration video, the subject was able to have a computer help aim the weapon and keep a lock on the target, similar to something Luke Skywaker might have had access to when shooting at enemy fighters from within the Millennium Falcon.

"You use the computer to lock on to the target at all times," Rice said. "That's what we are working on here. All he does is pull the trigger."

Rice said the Army isn't quite ready to take the hand-held, individual weapon version of the system and field it to Soldiers.

"There's a lot of work to be done to make this as light as an existing M4, and build in all these stabilization concepts," he said.

But the software that is inside that system is the same software that's inside the version for the crew-served weapon. And the system to automatically aim a crew-served weapon is likely to be available to Soldiers sooner.

Rice said that in about two years, they expect a user assessment of the software to be applied for use in a crew-served weapon.

"There is a foundational technology with software that's similar, no matter what system," he said. "It doesn't make any difference what caliber weapon either. It could be 5.56, 7.62, or .50-cal."

Rice said that with either a crew-served weapon or, one day when the concept is further developed for individual weapons, the technology will make it easier to be a more effective Soldier.

Soldiers will be able to "engage targets quicker, kill them quicker, and survive them," Rice said.

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