TrackingPoint Outranged by Military Technology

TrackingPoint Outranged by Military Technology
In 2013, TrackingPoint leaped into the MSR market with rifles that could engage multiple targets at the same time.

The company that became controversial in 2013 when it announced that an amateur with one of its shooting systems could easily hit targets at 1,000 yards “will no longer be accepting orders” because of financial difficulty, according to its website.

TrackingPoint's technology, which could even be used to tag, track, and shoot moving targets, was sold to civilians, but it had a lofty price tag. Their first bolt-action rifles sold for $22,500 to $27,500. In early 2014, a line of MSRs priced at $9,950 was introduced. These rifles could lock onto and hit moving targets at distances up to 500 yards.

But without a government contract, the consumer base for this product was a sliver of the rifle market.

Nevertheless, hype and its cool factor drove interest in Tracking Point. Some voiced fears that a TrackingPoint system could be used by a terrorist to kill people at extreme ranges. That has yet to happen, and there are several reasons why those scenarios are a little far-fetched. For example, someone using TrackingPoint’s shooting system still has to estimate wind drift, which can push a bullet far off course at long ranges. If, say, a rifle is chambered in .338 Lapua Magnum—some TrackingPoint rifles came in this caliber because it is a long-range caliber popular with Special Forces’ snipers—is shooting a 250-grain MatchKing bullet, that projectile will still drift 12.2 inches at 500 yards in a light 10 mph crosswind, and 57.1 inches at 1,000 yards from that same wind. You could use a toggle button to input wind speed into TrackingPoint’s scope, but winds are rarely consistent. (It is accounting for such variables that separates amateurs long-range shooters from the pros.)

TrackingPoint Outranged by Military Technology
This illustration from TrackingPoint shows how its shooting system worked.

TrackingPoint was founded as a tech company in Austin, Texas. Soon after its digital sighting systems were introduced the company got so much media attention that management decided to relocate to a bigger facility. They took their then 100 employees to a 48,000-square-foot building in nearby Pflugerville, Texas.

The TrackingPoint system included a video-screen scope (instead of aiming through a standard riflescope, instead you see a video image of what’s downrange). It used a laser rangefinder to measure the distance to the target, and other instruments to measure temperature, barometric pressure, incline/decline, cant, air density, Magnus effect drift (spin drift), target movement, and Coriolis effect drift from the spinning of the Earth. The riflescope’s computer then took all that data and used stored ballistic and firearm information including lock time, ignition time, rate and direction of barrel-rifling twist, muzzle velocity, and ballistic coefficient to calculate a shooting solution. Basically, the scope would figure out where the rifle needed to be held for the bullet to hit the target.

To put all that in motion, the shooter placed a “tag” on a target by centering a crosshair on the target and pushing a red button located on top of the scope. The tag then starts the calculation, which is automatically updated 52 times per second. The scope uses all this data to calculate the ballistic solution.

TrackingPoint Outranged by Military Technology
Like many manufacturers today, TrackingPoint’s engineers used the software program SolidWorks to build and even test new products on screen before actually building a new product.

To theoretically take human error out of the equation, TrackingPoint married a rifle’s trigger with the digital scope, so that the rifle wouldn’t fire after the trigger was pulled until the crosshair was precisely in line with the tag. With a traditional rifle/scope, a marksman must learn to breath properly and to apply pressure to a trigger perfectly so that gun goes off at precisely the right moment—even your heart beat can make the rifle shake noticeably at extreme long range—but with TrackingPoint’s system, none of that theoretically mattered. A novice could use this shooting system to hit targets placed 10 football fields away with very little training.

TrackingPoint was hoping a military contract would make up for the lack of consumer demand, but the U.S. military has long had similar and more advanced sniper-rifle programs underway. In 2007, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., funded Lockheed Martin to develop a technology called the “One-Shot” program that can automatically account for wind speed and other factors. In 2008, Lockheed Martin acquired fiber laser specialist Aculight Corp., located in Bothell, Wash., to help build this system. They reported that a sniper, using a system they’re working on, will one day be able to use fiber-laser technology—with wavelengths invisible to the human eye—to illuminate a target at night from over a mile away. The fiber laser could even theoretically measure bullet drift caused by wind, as it would use light reflections from moving particles between the sniper and the target to determine wind direction and speed.

TrackingPoint Outranged by Military Technology
TrackingPoint’s first bolt-action rifles sold for $22,500 to $27,500.

Lockheed Martin is also utilizing optics technology developed by private companies for cameras and other commercial optics to digitally zoom in on distant objects, to make it possible for a sniper to shoot a bullet at night across vast distances. Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin scientists are using the technology they’re creating with the One-Shot program to build a rifle sight called the Dynamic Image Gunsight Optic to help soldiers shoot more accurately at ranges from 10 to 2,000 feet.

Also, DARPA reported successful testing of self-guided, .50-caliber bullets. DARPA's Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) program has been working for some time on sniper bullets that make in-flight corrections as they zoom toward a distant target. All this quickly put TrackingPoint behind advances in military technology.