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Listening Robot Senses Snipers 303

Dr. Eggman writes "Popular Science has a brief piece on the RedOwl, a brainy-looking flightless robot that can 'read a nametag from across a football field and identify the make and model of a rifle fired a mile away simply by analyzing the sound of the distant blast.' For a paltry $150,000, the machine utilizes robotic hearing technology originally developed by Boston University's Photonics Center to improve hearing aids to sense a shot fired and pinpoint its source, identify it as a hostile or friendly weapon, and illuminate the target with a laser visible only with night vision. The RedOwl, built on an iRobot packbot platform and controlled via a modified Xbox videogame controller, can figure out the location of a target 3,000 feet away, allowing troops to call in a precision air strike."
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Listening Robot Senses Snipers

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  • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:51PM (#17675702) Homepage
    That video game AI snipers are cheaters!
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by flyingsquid ( 813711 )
      This robot is exactly the wrong approach to be taking in a counterinsurgency. Great, you've figured out where the sniper is holed up, and dropped a 500 lb. bomb on his head. Your $150,000 robot and your $20,000 guided bomb have now taken out exactly one (1) Iraqi insurgent. In the process, you've managed to piss off all the residents of the building by dropping high explosives on their homes, and pissed off all their friends and relatives, and convinced those people that you don't really give a shit about t
      • by Eskarel ( 565631 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:27PM (#17676062)
        If you would RTFA, or for that matter RTFSummary, you'd notice that they aren't painting for air strikes(though that is an option), they're painting the target for soldiers with night vision goggles. You don't drop a 500 lb bomb on the sniper(unless you have to), you light him up like a Christmas tree and shoot him in the head with a 50 cent bullet.

        Whether you're going to find snipers not using night vision goggles in light situations that allow for the use of night vision goggles I don't know, but I think the camera is supposed to provide you with an image in daylight.

        The whole point of this device is not having to drop a 500 lb bomb to clear out snipers, and of course to stop people from getting shot when they're trying to find the sniper.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by westlake ( 615356 )
          You don't drop a 500 lb bomb on the sniper, you light him up like a Christmas tree and shoot him in the head with a 50 cent bullet.

          For the civilian in Iraq, it's safe to assume that someone wants your head.
          Uniforms mean nothing. The sniper is everyone's enemy and there is no real downside to taking him out.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by rucs_hack ( 784150 )
          So what if then a sniper in a suberban area were, say, sat way back in a room, shooting out of a window?

          The acoustics would alter the sound significantly would they not? More so then if he were sat right in a window.

          I'm sure there would be ways to mess with such a device.

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Mercedes308 ( 832423 )
            Typical sniper doctrine in urban areas is to layup far back from the window threshold and also camouflage themselves against the background I.E. appropriately coloured blankets. The developers would have no doubt studied sniper doctrines from various forces around the world and would have accounted for this issue.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by forgetmenot ( 467513 )
              You are assuming that most snipers likely to be encountered are professionally trained.

              What's a pissed off farmer shooting at passing soldiers while hiding in his barn?
              Or say an Iraqi kid, hiding in a bombed out apartment flat, shooting at soldiers with a an abandoned AK
              Or a conscript cowering in fear amongst rubble taking pot shots with the rifle that was thrust into his hands.
              Hell, even a regular grunt who moves into a flanking position to try to pick off a few oppenonts while relatively concealed is a sn
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Xaoswolf ( 524554 )
            Or what if the sniper had a silencer???

            Or what if he shot the robot first???

            Or what if the sniper was using one of those robot guns from that online hunting thing from a while back???

            Or what if the sniper sniper wasn't really a sniper but a gorilla wearing big spikey gloves and jacked up on PCP???

      • by Babbster ( 107076 ) <aaronbabb&gmail,com> on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:28PM (#17676070) Homepage
        You seem to be confusing "strategy" with "tactics" - this is a tactical device. The bottom line is that if you have a sniper firing at your troops you have two options: Find the sniper and take him or her out, or leave the area (well, three, if you count just going on by in an armored vehicle). You're right that you wouldn't want to take out a sniper with a bomb if the sniper is in a densely populated area, but you can still use the described device to locate the sniper for either evasion or evasion plus attack (going into the apartment building in your scenario or using a friendly sniper to take out the enemy).

        Once the sniper is shooting, it's a bit too late to prevent him from doing so by making him your friend.
      • by msouth ( 10321 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:29PM (#17676080) Homepage Journal
        It's a great thing to be able to know where the threat is, first off. It's a huge improvement over knowing nothing.

        Second, the stuff I've read from milblogs and the like leads me to believe that there are rules about what they will hit. This doesn't change that. It's not like the robot has a missile launcher on it's back that it can autonomously respond with. This makes it easier to have a measured response because you know exactly where the threat is.

        If you were really concerned about decreasing collateral damage, I think you would consider this a huge benefit. But hey, don't let me stop you from thinking with your political platform!
        • Re:Real evidence... (Score:5, Informative)

          by spyder913 ( 448266 ) on Friday January 19, 2007 @12:42AM (#17676662)
          According to my brother, who just got out of Iraq on his second tour, their ROI have been updated to basically say that if someone is shooting at them they can engage. Previously they had to escalate and get someone who isn't even in the field to okay any engagement.
        • I wonder if they'll make another version where a sniper rifle is attached with an digital scope so that the robot could spin around, aim and the robot operator could view the LCD remotely and determine whether to do the shot or not. If he chooses to shoot, the whole process from time of the shot by the enemy sniper to the return shot by the robot could take less than a couple of seconds.
          • I'm not sure about that. Snipers usually hide themselves so perfectly that they aren't visible by a human from mere meters away. Little chance would be for an artificial vision device to identify a sniper.
                  And I doubt the robot is so perfect as to determine the location of a distant shot (500m or so) with enough certitude as to have the sniper in the crosshairs in a couple of seconds
      • Re: (Score:2, Troll)

        by drsquare ( 530038 )
        This robot is exactly the wrong approach to be taking in a counterinsurgency.
        So if this robot detects a sniper, so people can hide and avoid being assassinated, this is a bad thing? Perhaps you're prefer it if people didn't know about snipers and got shot?

        I'm sure if there was a sniper trying to kill you, you'd like to know about it.
        • this robot doesn't detect the sniper... it indicates where the shot came from... by then it's too late probably for the target... a good sniper will make one shot, one kill and then scoot to an alternate location... only an idiot with a deathwish holes up and stays where he is taking shots...
        • by Fred_A ( 10934 )
          I'm sure if there was a sniper trying to kill you, you'd like to know about it.
          According to the article, you won't know about it any more, but the robot will.
      • by Divebus ( 860563 )
        I can stop that thing with my pocket knife.
      • Re:Real evidence... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by plover ( 150551 ) * on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:44PM (#17676260) Homepage Journal
        The robot isn't the problem. The response of calling in an air strike may lead to the results you describe. But calling in your own counter-snipers is a much more fine-grained and appropriate response.

        First, anything to help our troops identify and kill those directly responsible for carrying out attacks on them is a huge benefit. I think counter-snipers are the best solution, but they're few and far between. A ground assault on the building would be a lower-key response, but much more risky to American lives. Precision air strikes are a safer alternative to an assault, but as you point out they cause casualties and are visible reminders of the occupation. But letting a sniper live is never the right answer.

        The civilians don't care much if Americans kill insurgents, as long as they only kill insurgents. You have to understand that most of the Iraqis are completely sick of the war. They don't care who's fighting whom, who's blowing up whom, they just want it done, they want us out, they want the insurgents to stop.

        Unfortunately, "making nice" isn't going to help. There is only a tiny group of people who are responsible for what's happening. They have adopted religion to carry out their agenda, and the power structure of Islam (imams have the local authority to decree whatever they want) makes it pathetically easy for them to subvert it to their own ends by convincing a few crazy fundamentalist imams to follow them. They use attacks for recruitment (as you point out, if the attacks stopped recruitment would drop.) But the attacks don't stop, because the leaders of the insurgency don't want them stopped. For example, the latest rounds of bombing in Baghdad have been in markets serving all faiths; Sunnis, Shiites and Christians all died from the same bomb blast. It's pretty obvious to an outside observer that the goal isn't "kill the Shiites or kill the Sunnis"; instead it's "kill civilians to pressure America and foster more hatred." And it's also become more apparent to everyone that the insurgency has always been coming from Iran. The Iraqis have no particular desire to see their country bombed into the sixth century, but the Iranian "revolutionary guards" don't have to live there, now, do they?

        • by darkonc ( 47285 )

          But letting a sniper live is never the right answer.

          The civilians don't care much if Americans kill insurgents, as long as they only kill insurgents. You have to understand that most of the Iraqis are completely sick of the war. They don't care who's fighting whom, who's blowing up whom, they just want it done, they want us out, they want the insurgents to stop.

          You're partly right. Killing innocent civilians is never the right answer. Yeah. a sniper is a serious pain in the ass, and you really really really want him dead. ... but if you take out 5 families with the sniper, you're gonna piss of a whole lot of people and make some of the angry enough to join the insurgency.

          As you've pointed out, most Iraqis just want the freaking war to end. They don't care how it ends. They just want it gone. ... however, they mostly blame the US for all the death that's goin

      • Quote from the parent comment: "This robot is exactly the wrong approach to be taking in a counterinsurgency."

        For President and General Dwight Eisenhower was right. The Military-Industrial Complex has a life of its own that ignores the well-being of the people. The U.S. government spends any amount of money for killing, and very little money on making relationships. It was reported that, of the more than 1,000 Americans in diplomatic service in Iraq, exactly 6 speak Arabic.

        Here's my summary of Bush ad
        • Quick tip from the summary: One of the main purposes of invading Iraq was to reduce the supply of oil and make the price go up. Before the invasion, Iraq was selling 3.5 million barrels a day. Now the country sells 2 million. The Bush family and Cheney have investments in oil and weapons, and they act to make the value of their investments increase.

          Wouldn't it be better to have invested in corn and really push ethanol. How about investing in batteries and push hybrids. Maybe buy soybean futures and mandat
    • by Divebus ( 860563 )
      Hey! Get the people at live-shot.com on the phone! Pay-per-view sniper hunting - the true "killer app".
    • This reminds me of those gunshot sensors in Deus Ex..
  • *frown* (Score:5, Funny)

    by WobindWonderdog ( 1049538 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:51PM (#17675712)
    Aimbot =(
    • Everything sounded pretty normal until the XBox controller...that was pretty funny.

      This used to be called 'Nintendo Warfare'. I'd almost say we'll change the term to 'XBox Warfare' but it won't be long before somebody mods a Wii controller to do all of this AND make the kill shot to.
  • by earwiggie ( 871202 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @10:55PM (#17675754)
    is called Biomimetic Systems [biomimetic-systems.com]. It was the result of the thesis work by a former BU grad student Socrates Deligeorges. I have seen the robot in action and it is pretty awesome!
    • I saw some neural nets achieving this sort of result about 20 years ago. Do some spectral analysis, stuff the values through a trained NN and you could determine all kinds of thing. Type of car driving past, type of plane flying past/overhead, shape & material that sonar pings were coming from, type of gunfire.

      The technology to achieve this has been there for a long time. It is just that now military spending is growing again.

  • <robot-voice>IT IS QUIET HERE. . . . TOO QUIET.</robot-voice>
    • I think implicit in the system is one casualty, if the sniper is effective. But that's better than two casualties or more.
    • by grcumb ( 781340 )

      <robot-voice>IT IS QUIET HERE. . . . TOO QUIET.</robot-voice>

      You've spotted the problem:

      SNIPER INSTRUCTION BOOK (REVISED)

      1. Shoot sniper bot first
      2. Continue as before

      Seriously, though, one of the 'benefits' (sorry) of an urban insurgency is that the sniper can shoot and displace with ease. Those videos released from the insurgents in Baghdad show snipers firing out the back of a parked car. One shot is fired, and the car drives away.

  • by dave562 ( 969951 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:01PM (#17675812) Journal
    I saw something like this on TV a few years ago. There were some security contractors in Iraq who had a similar device that determined range and vector to gunshots. I don't remember it having the laser designator, but other than that, it was pretty much the exact same thing.
  • but... (Score:4, Funny)

    by CalSolt ( 999365 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:06PM (#17675854)
    Who the hell snipes at night?
  • by clragon ( 923326 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:06PM (#17675858)
    The system can recognize weapons by their report, and thus ignore friendly fire.

    So if any of our weapons fall into enemy hands, this robot will actually hinder handicap the user since they would be ignoring shots from the other side thinking that it's just FF?
    • I'm sure if "friendly fire" is coming from a place that it's not supposed to be, I'm sure they can override the programming and figure out where it is.
  • by Heisman ( 1002013 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:19PM (#17675978)
    Too bad it's not controlled by a Wii controller. Then you could just kill the sniper with the controller and avoid the air strike altogether.
  • differentiating the make and model of a rifle fired a mile away simply by analyzing the sound of the distant blast. Sorry, bzzzt, no. There is NO way to distinguish one, let's say, 22 Long Rifle muzzle blast signature from another, reliably. You can't pretend to tell me that muzzle crowning of one model vs the other can be that specific. Location, yeah, OK, maybe, triangulation and all that. Sound signature based on make and model? Bullshiat. There's about 4 different muzzle crown profiles used, and t
  • by Parallax Blue ( 836836 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:29PM (#17676082)
    ...he'll be able to call in precision chair strikes!
    • Here are some Steve Ballmer quotes for you:

      "I like to tell people that all of our products and business will go through three phases. There's vision, patience, and execution."

      "Bill brings to the company the idea that conflict can be a good thing..."

      "We [Microsoft] don't have a monopoly. We have precision (ch)air strikes. There's a difference."
  • So, an idea for an anti-sniper measure occured to me a couple of weeks ago. Once you've identified the location from which the shot was fired, you shine a laser at it at an intensity such that if you're looking at it with the naked eye, you're extremely uncomfortable, but if you're looking through a scope, you lose an eye. I wonder what would happen to casualty rates for US soldiers in Iraq if sniping was a two-shot career.

    -jcr

    • by aXis100 ( 690904 )
      The sniper could quite easily be pointing in a different direction - the muzzle blast is going to be spreading out in all directions whereas his scope is quite limited.
    • by Xiph ( 723935 )
      It's illegal according to at least one of the universally adopted Geneva conventions to use weapons that will injure, but are not capable of killing. However, violating these conventions does not seem to stop the U.S.
      • by jcr ( 53032 )
        It's illegal according to at least one of the universally adopted Geneva conventions to use weapons that will injure, but are not capable of killing.

        Oh, fair enough. In that case, just upping the power to make it lethal would suffice.

        However, violating these conventions does not seem to stop the U.S.

        You do realize, I hope, that the convention only applies to armed conflict between soldiers in uniform, whose countries are both signatories to the convention?

        Read and learn. [ejectejecteject.com]

        -jcr
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rtechie ( 244489 )
      Once you've identified the location from which the shot was fired, you shine a laser at it at an intensity such that if you're looking at it with the naked eye, you're extremely uncomfortable, but if you're looking through a scope, you lose an eye.

      Besides the aformentioned Geneva issues (laser weapons used for blinding being needlessly cruel), what's the point? Targeting the scope at the proper angle seems to be a MUCH more difficult issue than you take into consideration. And if you can target the scope we
  • When will this be used against the Citizens of the US?
  • There are systems in place, albeit mainly fixed location (for the most part) that perform this task. Shotspotter [shotspotter.com] is one that comes to mind, along with FireFinder [fas.org] for larger caliber weapons.

    What caught my eye was that it was BU doing this research and development. I lived in Boston for a long time (Cape Cod resident now) and still read the Boston Globe. Just about two weeks ago there was an article [boston.com] (beware, Undertone pop-unders) about the Boston city government looking into deploying Shotspotter in Roxbur
  • by nexuspal ( 720736 ) on Thursday January 18, 2007 @11:43PM (#17676242)
    A common sniper tactic is to position yourself in a location where hills and other terrain will reflect sound back to the target, confusing the target as to the actual location of your fires. Couldn't sound reflection be brought into play and give the device the wrong location, or a set of wrong locations?
    • by Divebus ( 860563 )
      The first sound is the direct sound. Seeing as the calculation for direction is done in a about six milliseconds, any reflections would arrive much later and can be discarded. The robot will twiddle its thumbs for 200 milliseconds and figure the echos are just that - echos.
  • This is all well and fine, until the next upgraded model starts searching for Sarah Conner. Then we're all in for it.
  • Echo! Echo? Echo. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by StikyPad ( 445176 ) on Friday January 19, 2007 @12:39AM (#17676634) Homepage
    ...the machine utilizes robotic hearing technology...to sense a shot fired and pinpoint its source.

    The problem is that it's simple to pinpoint a source out in the open, but it's much more difficult to determine the source in an urban environment with all of the occlusions and echoes caused by buildings, vehicles, etc. I'm sure this thing works great in the lab, but I doubt it would fare as well in real urban combat.
    • Wouldn't the originating sound reach all points before any of the echos?
    • by Illserve ( 56215 ) on Friday January 19, 2007 @09:05AM (#17679314)
      You're missing out on the key point that is alluded to in the summary.

      They've finally developed a flightless robot.

      Flightless! It does not fly, AT ALL. Mankind has been dreaming of this since the dawn of science fiction... robots that don't go flying all over the place. awesome.

    • by jmv ( 93421 ) on Friday January 19, 2007 @09:32AM (#17679650) Homepage
      Actually, echo shouldn't be too much of a problem because it always arrives *after* the initial sound -- as long as you've got line of sight, which I'm guessing would be the main limitation. I suspect another source of error would be the refraction caused by temperature gradients, but I'm not sure how much effect that has. Otherwise, I also share your impression that this is probably a great lab gadget...
  • iRobot? These guys are likely to get sued by both Will Smith _and_ Apple.
  • "controlled via a modified Xbox videogame controller"
    I'm guessing this is so that the next generation of enlisted men will already feel familiar with the controls.
    If so, smart move.
    If not, then I wonder why they cheaped out on the remote?
  • I'd snipe some guy from 2 miles away and then they all turn and lay down fire on my exact location. Fuck that.
  • So... are they using the Bear, Girly or WiFi w/ Crappy D-Pad controller?
  • My first thought on reading this was, "Holy fuck!" Thinking about the new level of totalitarianism such a device would enable. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to feel certain that as long as they're using a technology called iRobot in their design, it won't go anywhere, because they'll be embroiled in lawsuits with Apple until long after my bones have turned to dust.
  • Is it bulletproof?

  • by guruevi ( 827432 ) <evi&evcircuits,com> on Friday January 19, 2007 @02:38AM (#17677396) Homepage
    They 1 - hide, very very good, so even if you lasertag the area, you'll have difficulty finding him and 2 - a smart sniper doesn't stay in the same location popping 10-ths of bullets in people's brains. Snipers are supposed to be single-shot accurate and have a mission to kill a certain person, whether that be a commander, a guard or whatever it may be, if you want more people dead, you deploy a force with a little bigger firepower. The problem (these days in the military too) is that people have been watching too much high-suspense movies and they're using resources like snipers the same way as well as making 'solutions' to counter Hollywood-style military personnel. I've got family that is in Iraq (he's actually got sniper training) and he can tell you all about the use of 100's of military personnel to guard a small area while other areas are under-stabilized and the misuse of their skills to reflect more 'American' style high-suspense combat fighting against guerilla and other 'insurgents' that can transform from civilians walking around on the marketplace to fighter-with-automatic-rifle in a few seconds.
    • by Builder ( 103701 ) on Friday January 19, 2007 @06:09AM (#17678476)
      I think you're thinking about a professionally trained sniper operating under military command. What is being discussed here is something different. Have a look into the Bosnia and Sarejevo (sp?) campaigns and you'll find a lot of exactly this kind of sniping going on.

      Guys would setup in a good position and stay there for days at a time. Building to building and Building to road fire was common. The problem was partly the UN mandate in the area didn't always allow them to go after these people, and partly that the sniper positions were difficult to assault without causing collateral damage.

      In most of the cases that I have read, snipers were taken out either when a building was bombed, or by snipers from the opposite team. Staying in one place allowed the good guys to get a fix and setup their own sniper in a position to challenge the enemy sniper.
  • Anyone else find it funny that from all the "sci-fi" films of the 20th century, the lighthearted comedy Short Circuit [johnny-five.com] had the most realistic combat robots?

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