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Tracking Point Precision Guided Firearm Review

by Eric R. Poole   |  February 13th, 2014   |   11

This smart rifle doesn’t shoot itself. Rather, it still requires users to locate the target, input windage, place the rifle off Safe, make a good tag and pull the trigger. TrackingPoint is a system, one designed to make first-round hits more probable at any distance.

The bolt-action rifle, telescopic riflescope and machined cartridge ammunition are innovations of the 19th century. Small arms have remained isolated from the microelectronics and computing revolution until the development of the Precision Guided Firearm (PGF) by TrackingPoint started in 2011.

The TrackingPoint PGF integrates microelectronics, microprocessors and wireless communication technology for the purpose of designating a target, tracking, networking and fire control. The result is a system that quickly enables a shooter to effect multiple shots with precision at multiple unknown distances. It went from concept to prototype to maturity in just two years.

The sniping adage “One Shot, One Kill” is mathematically inaccurate. Based on information gathered by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the probability of hit data illustrates that even a formally trained sniper has difficulty in making first-round hits at long range. In fact, existing military sniper systems offer less than a 5 percent chance of striking a target with the first round at 1,000 yards. At 500 yards, rifles chambered in 7.62 NATO only scored subsequent hits 50 percent of the time, while .300 Win. Mag. and .50-caliber rifle systems slightly improved that percentage to nearly 60.

The point is that long-range shooting isn’t easy, and hits are not even a guaranteed result for trained snipers using some of the best sniper rifles. There are three primary reasons for a miss: improper assessment of the environment, improper assessment of range and errors associated with human input. TrackingPoint improves success with a closed-loop system consisting of a custom-built rifle, advanced optic technology and specially toleranced conventional ammunition. The result is a platform that has proven to deliver a greater than 50 percent chance of first-round-hit success at 1,000 yards to an untrained novice. Skilled shooters should expect even better results.

The networked tracking scope utilizes four major processors and three minor processors. They include the Predictive Image Processing Pipeline (PIPE) processors, the Tracking Digital Signal Processor (DSP) for foreground target tracking and ballistics computation, an imaging processor for active imaging control, and the user interface processor that runs the heads-up display graphics, Wi-Fi and off-scope video processing. The PIPE integrates the image-based target tracking algorithms with the heads-up display format to present the information to the shooter. The three minor processors are less interesting — power management and image compression.

The fire-control technology focuses on the guided trigger, which eliminates the primary sources for missed shots: trigger manipulation, breath control and shot timing. The instant the shooter draws the trigger, the round will only fire at the precise moment necessary to hit the target because the trigger is hard wired into the networked tracking scope’s automatic ballistic calculator.

Onboard Wi-Fi allows for any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet to stream live. Once the red tag button is pressed and activated to tag a target, the system begins recording and continues to record until a user-selected time has elapsed after the shot.

The TrackingPoint system includes front and rear optical assemblies and a laser rangefinder. Each works in conjunction with image processing software to produce a clear view of the targets at distance. This may sound backward, but the lenses are fixed at a maximum magnification. The digital zoom is used to reduce magnification, rather than increase it, which allows the system to maintain image quality at long range without becoming distorted and pixelated. The rear ocular lens expands the displayed image to a viewable size with a forgiving eye relief of 3¾ inches and a larger-than-normal eye box without any parallax.

The eye-safe laser rangefinder lights up the target with short bursts and measures the elapsed time light is reflected. The rangefinder utilizes two apertures adjacent to the center-imaging lens. One transmits, the other receives. One thousand pulses are fired in one-tenth of a second.

TrackingPoint users don’t look through the scope like with a conventional optic. Instead, they see a computer-rendered image and overlay of relevant targeting data on the Heads-Up Display (HUD) in real time. The 110mm telephoto lens resolves the viewing area on a 14.6-megapixel image sensor streaming at 54 frames per second. The PIPE decodes each frame into an RGB frame for display and a black-and-white frame for the target tracking system. The display presents a variety of information and can be customized to fit a customer’s request.

The user interface is intuitive and simple to learn. It takes less than five minutes for the user to master the system depending on the shooter’s experience.

A host of sensors and gyroscopes inside the TrackingPoint measure environmental and positional factors relevant to long-range shooting. These include temperature, barometric pressure and relative humidity. The Internal Measurement Unit (IMU) determines cant (or roll), inclination (or pitch) and yaw (or shot direction). Four microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) with three-axis gyroscopes, a single three-axis accelerometer and a single three-axis magnetometer make up this complex unit. The IMU updates 54 times per second and continuously updates the viewer’s HUD.

Wind is the only significant environmental influence that requires manual input, but TrackingPoint is actively working toward a solution. Pressing the wind rocker buttons located on top of the scope enters the user-determined adjustment for aggregate crosswind in half-mile-per-hour increments in the direction the wind is blowing relative to the barrel left or right. The computer then compensates for wind given the computer-measured range. Therefore, there is no need for a shooter to memorize holdovers for how the wind pushes a bullet at different distances.

The most critical algorithm in the system is the real-time ballistics solution. The TrackingPoint computes a new solution 54 times per second. Proprietary measurements take into account drag coefficient, launch dynamics, muzzle velocity and barrel life information. Sensor inputs are gathered from the time of tag to provide compass direction, hemisphere and relative humidity with temperature and pressure readings in addition to the IMU’s measured cant, inclination and shot direction.

Unlike most ballistic calculators, the TrackingPoint does not use a ballistic coefficient (BC) to calculate the bullet’s flight path. BC is considered to be an antiquated method developed in 1881 for determining a drag curve in light of more modern methods now available to manufacturers. Further, it is now understood that the same bullet will behave differently when fired through different rifles, making precise predictions unreliable. Consider that a 300-grain .338 LM bullet actually has a measured BC of .381 when fired through the TrackingPoint XS1. The manufacturer’s published value of .367 translates to a 3.8 percent variance, which results in more than 10 inches of error at 1,200 yards.

TrackingPoint uses Doppler radar to measure different rifle and bullet combinations to obtain correct velocity patterns. This data is then processed to obtain a custom drag coefficient lookup table for each rifle system configuration.

Based on life-cycle barrel testing, muzzle velocity peaks initially as the barrel breaks in and decreases as additional rounds are fired. TrackingPoint recognized this and built in a shot counter that records the number of rounds fired through the barrel. The muzzle velocity value within the ballistic model is then adjusted for round count, ensuring accuracy throughout the life cycle of each rifle system.

The PIPE performs background-tracking algorithms, allowing the scope to recognize angular velocity in relation to the target. The tracking system computes real-time target position relative to the scope to determine the moving target’s velocity. The target velocity is then computed to develop an expected position prediction for the next 18 1/2 milliseconds. Moving targets can be accurately tracked up to 10 mph. However, the user must keep the target within the view of the image sensor. The tracking engine will also calculate a tracked target’s speed for use in ballistic lead algorithms.

The barrel reference system ensures that the TrackingPoint maintains zero over time. A fixed reference point is positioned in front of the TrackingPoint scope on the rear of the barrel. The scope is aware of the pixel position of the fixed reference point and senses when it moves. The optic adjusts appropriately for scope or rifle movements, accounting for scope-to-barrel bore sight misalignments caused by transportation, vibration, temperature variations and other environmental and handling factors.

This system is calibrated to a laser reference to ensure a permanent, virtual reference of barrel orientation. Detected deviations are removed from the ballistics equation to ensure that precise zero calibration conducted at the factory will be retained over the lifetime of the product.

The trigger is based on Arnold Jewell’s trigger design. It is connected to the TrackingPoint scope by a hard-wired cable to provide fire control for the user. The trigger does not fire the rifle upon command from the scope. Rather, it prevents the operator from firing the rifle when it is not optimally aligned to the target. The shooter cannot fire the rifle system without disengaging the manual safety on the action and fully pulling the trigger rearward.

A small electric solenoid in the Jewell trigger receives power from the scope in order to provide the blocking function to the trigger when the scope is in Advanced Mode. The trigger will not fire as long as the blocking solenoid is engaged, and the shooter cannot overpower this internal safety system.

The scope controls the guided trigger to eliminate trigger slap and shot timing errors. If the barrel is not positioned to place a round exactly where a tag is set, the system will defer the launch of the round. When the shooter adjusts the rifle to a point that intersects precisely with the center of the firing solution, the trigger will un-block, allowing the round to fire at the optimal moment to hit the target.

The Tag, Track, Xact (TTX) shot sequence is simple. The first step is to range the target and tag the shot location. Align with the target and press the red tag button on the side of the triggerguard. When this red button is pressed, the target is ranged, the system instantly computes a firing solution (represented by a blue X reticle) and a tag is placed on the targeted spot with a red dot. When the tag button is released, the ballistics computer determines a solution based on measured range as well as the rifle and ammunition characteristics and environmental sensor inputs. This ballistic solution is updated 54 times each second to compensate for changing conditions.

The tracking algorithm consists of a foreground track and a background track that persistently tracks the target as it moves. The foreground tag point is measured against the motion relative to the rest of the world in view. The PIPE tracks the wide field of view while ignoring any target motion. The tag “sticks” to the target as long as it remains in the shooter’s field of view. If the target leaves the field of view, the HUD displays a yellow arrow indicating the target’s direction.

Once the shooter pulls the guided trigger with intent to fire, the blue X reticle turns red. The system releases the shot when the aiming point is exactly aligned with the target tag. Due to lead-time before correct alignment occurs, the TrackingPoint system must release the shot before arriving at the tag point in order to fire in time.

At boot-up (two seconds), the rifle immediately goes to the Mil-Dot FFP reticle and allows you to range with it. This has been shot accurately out past 500. This is for situations where you have to make a very fast shot, say at a charging animal or something inside of 50 yards where tagging may not be achievable or practical.

Any shooter equipped with the TrackingPoint rifle system is capable of delivering accurate fire at extended ranges with little training or ammo consumption even on targets that are moving. The shooter can quickly engage multiple stationary or moving targets at unknown distances without manipulating conventional scope turrets or memorizing holdovers. TrackingPoint increases the first-round-hit probability while decreasing time usually needed to become proficient.

Additionally, the shooter can observe and record video while guides and observers can see what the shooter sees through streaming images sent to wireless iOS or Android devices. Shooter/coach, hunter/guide and shooter/spotter relationships are now shared. Now you can share your experience with others via email and social media. Another feature on the app allows you to change from the match round to the LRX hunting round. The ability to stream connects onlookers or shooting partners to the overall experience. The ability to share connects you with the world.

TrackingPoint is sold commercially, though the company has been in discussions with U.S. government entities about integrating its technology with existing small-arms systems. It has already been seen equipped on military systems like the U.S. Army’s M2010 sniper rifle for testing and development. This system has already experienced extensive field testing. In the future, TrackingPoint will be remembered as the proverbial game changer.

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