August 22, 2009: The U.S. Army has just ordered another 1,095 Boomerang Sniper Detection Systems, and 2,195 vehicle installation kits. Boomerang has been in wide use for the last three years. After over a decade of intense effort, sniper detectors are still a work in progress.
The acoustic sniper detectors have had the most success, and several thousand of them have been shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan. Sniper detection systems basically provide directional information about where the snipers are. Several generations of these systems have showed up over the last five years. The usefulness of these anti-sniper systems has increased as the manufacturers have decreased the number of false alarms, and improved the user interface. There are other reasons for all this progress, including major advances in computing power, sensor quality and software development. The latest wave of improvements are providing nearly instant, and easy to comprehend, location info on the sniper.
On the low end of the cost scale, there is the U.S. Boomerang system. This one has been around for five years, costs about $25,000 each, and has been effective enough to get new orders and lots of work from troops that use it. Originally developed in ten weeks, in response to an urgent DARPA call for such systems, Boomerang survived, rapidly evolved and thrived. It's basically very simple. Seven microphones are mounted on a vehicle, connected to an electronics package (computer, sound library, digital sound processor, etc). When a shot is fired nearby (within 400 meters or so), Boomerang detects it, and calculates the direction and elevation. This is immediately shown on a small display inside the vehicle, and also announced over a speaker. Speed is essential, and Boomerang, in effect, takes the place of a soldier "in the back of the truck" who just happened to spot where the shot was coming from. Well, maybe not that accurately, but accurately enough. Boomerang now gives false results about one time in a thousand. Boomerang is one system the troops keep asking for.
Not all the manufacturers are American. The French firm Metravib, has been turning out several generations of their Pilar system, since the 1990s. This is a high end system, costing about $70,000. That gets you the acoustic array, a laptop size device containing the signal processor (specialized computer) and a laptop that displays the results, and controls the system. Pilar has recently received a companion system, Pivot, which will automatically point a camera at the source of the fire, and display the video wherever it is needed. Pivot costs $200,000, and could substitute a machine-gun for the camera. But no one wants to go there just yet.
The U.S. firm, iRobot, which makes the most widely used combat robot, the PackBot, developed a similar system. Called REDOWL (for Robot Enhanced Detection Outpost with Lasers), it mounts a 5.5 pound device on a PackBot that contained an infrared (heat sensing) video camera, laser rangefinder and acoustic gunfire detector. When the device is turned on, the camera and laser will point to any gunshot in the area. This makes it a lot easier for nearby troops to take out the sniper. REDOWL can also be mounted on vehicles, or anywhere, for that matter. In tests, REDOWL has been right 94 percent of the time. Some developers suggested equipping REDOWL with a machine-gun in place of the laser. But the U.S. Army isn't ready for an armed robot that will identify and fire on targets all by itself. Pilar has one edge over REDOWL, longer range. Pilar can find snipers who are as far as a thousand meters out, about twice the range of the iRobot system.
For decades, sniper detectors were theoretical darlings of military R&D geeks. But now, with lots of need, better technology and money to quickly buy several generations of a system, the devices are actually making themselves useful. Not all units have officers or troops who can make the most of sniper detection systems. But those that do, are hell on the local sniper population.