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Technology roadmap delivers sniper solution

When Industry Canada and National Defence first discussed using technology road mapping to bring together soldiers, defence scientists, academia and industry to identify gaps and future technology needs in an effort to modernize the Canadian soldier, they hoped the workshop environment would spur collaboration.

Few would have predicted the Soldier System Technology Roadmap process to deliver a new product before the development phase was even complete.

Rick Bowes, director of land strategy and business development for DRS Technologies Canada, admits he might have jumped the gun, but good ideas wait for no one. During a coffee break at a SSTRM workshop in Toronto on lethal and non-lethal weapons in November 2009, Bowes and others from several companies and Defence R&D Canada Valcartier (DRDC-V) began sketching out on napkins a solution to one of the perennial problem for shooters – integration of ballistic performance with sensor inputs.

DRS had been targeting the army’s integrated sniper system program, though Bowes admits that at the time they were still determining the army’s operational and technical requirements. But a presentation that morning from Major Bruce Gilchrist on the future of small arms development struck home. Faced with the challenge of collaboratively targeting a lone shooter or assailant (affectionately named “Waldo”) in a large crowd, how can a sniper team accurately and positively find, identify and eliminate a Waldo in a crowd with errors in shot and resultant collateral damage? Gilchrist had asked. How can the effectiveness of target hand-off, and the probability of hit be increased for operators?

Over coffee, the table zeroed in on a number of factors that would be relevant to “finding Waldo,” one of which seemed to be ballistic performance and muzzle velocity.

“An ability to measure how fast a round is going out of the barrel – because every round is different – would be a huge factor towards solving that problem,” Bowes explained. Working with an ex-master sniper back at the office, he and his DRS team found a solution he dubbed Waldo’s Widget, officially known as the Soldier Fire Control System (SFCS).

While the SFCS has a number of features and capabilities designed to vastly improve target identification and hand-off among a number of operators, its core is a muzzle velocity sensor. The system sits on the Picatinny rail of any weapon and draws on a number of acoustic sensors to characterize how the weapon is performing between the time the primer of a round is struck and the bullet leaves the barrel. “It starts to learn,” Bowes said. “Meteorological and other sensor inputs are fed into a ballistics computation that then gives a range azimuth correction to the operator. It helps the operator correct his aim point so that his probability of hit for second, third and fourth rounds is that much more accurate.”

The prototype, which has received keen interest from a range of military and law enforcement customers just in the past few months, involved focused discussions with the DRDC as well as another company exploring a similar problem. “We have a growing list of customers knocking at our door,” Bowes said. “Part of our challenge is to understand how we develop this to best suit each of their particular requirements. We’re learning that this is probably going to be more of a product line than just a product.”

Bowes is especially proud of the fact that SFCS is a made-in-Canada solution, involving partners from the SSTRM process. That’s significant for a number of reasons. Canada is projected to spend about $2.5 billion on soldier system capabilities in the next decade, about 20 percent of the Land Forces’ capital budget, creating a lucrative market for Canadian companies. Furthermore, other nations without large development budgets are watching the SSTRM process to capitalize on the technologies and capabilities that result.

In early June, the SSTRM team marked the end of the development phase with a capstone report and action plan highlighting crucial R&D priorities – “we have never had future capability gaps so clearly defined,” observed BGen Alex Patch, the director general for Land Equipment Program Management – and announced the creation of an interdepartmental soldier system project management office for a three-year period to drive the next phase of the process by encouraging industry and academia to steer technology development while providing support for R&D funding.

While SFCS may have superseded the SSTRM process, Bowes acknowledges its role in the product’s development and its necessity as an ongoing collaborative venue for the military, government, academia and industry. “There are two things [government] is interested in: helping Canadian companies come up with innovative ideas that create jobs for Canadians and create a market-attractive product that not only meets a demand in Canada but importantly has export value,” he said. “This process makes it a lot easier. The relationships have been formed and it is starting to come together. But we’ll have to revisit it every two or three years because technology moves so fast.”

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