Rifles tricked-out with Wi-Fi that lock onto their targets as if in a video game and send hunting kill shots to your friends on social media. GPS-packed, self-guided mortar shells that use satellites to reach their final destinations. Mock towns where the military and private actors test out cyberwarfare scenarios. The next generation of weapons and military tools are here, whether we like them or not.
Post-Sandy Hook, the question of how much we like weapons is more fraught than ever. Yesterday, President Obama laid out 23 solutions for combating gun violence in the United States. Still, the U.S. has a huge market for rifles and pistols of all sort. Some of them are used legitimately for sporting purposes. Others are collected en masse, with many citizens collecting several guns under the same roof for self-defense purposes. Since Newtown, there have been 1,013 American deaths from gun violence. Right now in Las Vegas, the Shooting Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show (SHOT), is taking place. SHOT is one of America's biggest gun industry trade shows—and it is sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
The NSSF, as it happens, is based in Newtown, Connecticut. The organization has led a rebranding campaign to rename AR-15s and other military-style semiautomatic rifles as "modern sporting rifles." The campaign's tagline is "Trucks have changed since Grandpa got his ... So have hunting rifles."
At the SHOT show, which is closed to the public and has restricted media access, approximately 60,000 people are visiting 12 miles of booths at the Sands Expo Convention Center. Manufacturers give visitors, mainly retailers, hands-on opportunities to try the latest weapons and gadgets like an iPhone case that doubles as a stun gun.
Other high-tech weapons available on the retail market include Linux-powered rifles. TrackingPoint is an Austin, Texas-based startup which makes high-end "precision guided firearms" whose higher-end models can lock onto targets from 1,000 yards away. TrackingPoint's rifles also include a built-in iPad app (the weapons come with complimentary iPad minis) that allow instant shot viewing and sharing via social media. TrackingPoint's Bret Boyd told Fast Company that the weapons, which start at $17,500 for the cheapest model, are aimed at the hunting market and have a fully integrated iOS and Android functionality for sharing video replays.
The gun captures each shot sequence from the time a target is tagged until 10 seconds after the shot. When hunting, users can simply lock on a target and fire—the skill factor is largely removed from the equation. While the rifle's design makes it undesirable for close range use, it also offers something close to guaranteed hits on hunting and safari trips.
Shortly after the new year, a patent application was filed for radio-guided mortar shells and bullets. Northrop Grumman patented a process for projectiles to work in tandem with a polarized RF beam. That tech works like this: A ground emitter locks on to a target, which then automatically makes the mortar shell, bullet, or other projectile follow the beam to its destination. Guided bullets and shells have been on the United States military's (among others) dream shopping list for years—the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has been pouring heavy funds into hyper-velocity bullets guided by GPS systems; General Dynamics has also been testing GPS-guided mortars for use by UAVs. Even ground troops in Afghanistan are testing out GPS-guided mortar rounds.
The Office of Naval Research is also working on a program called Data-to-Decisions, which is designed to implement private sector-style big data analysis for the military. According to ONR's program announcement, the military is looking for algorithms to parse publicly available data sources such as Twitter, Facebook, and websites to find the "frequency of contacts between nodes and clusters"; the dream is to create predictive text-based analytics that provide more detailed views of how groups of interest operate. Of particular interest, says Nextgov's Dawn Lim, are data sets relating to agriculture, terrain, weather, demographics, and economic indicators. Open Source intelligence where data is parsed from publicly available sources has been gaining acceptance with the military for some time; however, private sector organizations such as financial institutions and insurance companies use it in a much more agile nature than the public sector.
Meanwhile, researchers at a private organization have built a model city for cyberwarfare in New Jersey. Co.Exist's Emily Badger recently discovered CyberCity, a model railroad-style mockup of a real town constructed by information security training organization SANS. CyberCity, which is 6 feet by 8 feet, is used by public and private parties—including government officials—to simulate the kinetic effects of cyberwarfare. The town has 15,000 virtual inhabitants, all of whom have their own data records and electronic health records. When bad guys hack into the power grid, the mockup suffers a real blackout. When malicious hackers hack into the traffic systems, traffic lights go out and there's chaos on the road. However, participants are also trained in how to derail trains barreling towards towns with radiological weapons, and how to reprogram rocket launchers aimed at hospitals. It's not too hard to imagine training taking place for offensive cyberwarfare as well.
Innovation takes place in the world of weapons and defense just as it does in other fields. The challenge is to make sure innovations are used wisely—and not to waste taxpayer money or to create high-end hunting toys. After all, as drone warfare teaches us, today's science fiction is tomorrow's everyday life.
[Top Image: U.S. Army]