Austin’s Tracking Point Uses Wi-Fi, Video Tech to Build Smarter Gun

It’s like a video game come to life.

Tracking Point, based in an Austin, TX, suburb, has developed a firearms technology that allows shooters to harness the power of Wi-Fi, the Web, and streaming video for the kind of long-range precision shooting that can guide bullets to hunting or military targets around corners.

The company’s app, called ShotView, streams video through wearable devices, enabling shooters to “see” over ramparts or other obstacles and hit targets not directly visible. Also, the firearms can connect to each other via Wi-Fi to share data and livestream the action on laptops, tablets, and other devices. So, the gun could be lifted over a rampart but the shooter stays safely behind, watching the target on Google Glass through video streamed from the firearm’s Wi-Fi server.

“The idea really excites people,” says John Lupher, Tracking Point’s CEO.

ShotView is one piece of technology sold by the company, which makes what it calls precision-guidance semiautomatic and bolt-action firearms (rifles) loaded with a built-in computer to enable shooters to hit targets as far away as 1,200 feet. Tracking Point calls its special sauce the “XactSystem,” a “lock-and-launch” technology similar to those in jet fighters that can read and adjust for environmental variables such as temperature, distance, and wind to improve accuracy of shots, even at long distances. Essentially, the human hand might shake; Tracking Point’s systems, the company says, do not.

An assortment of tools, such as sensors, gyros, and laser range finders calculate the distance, angle, and other measurements of the shot. A user looks through a headsup display and moves a red button onto the intended target. This arms the trigger. A red X then appears in the view finder and the shooter moves the X over the tag. When the trigger is pulled, the gun will not go off if it feels the hand move or other less-than-ideal conditions. It waits that micro of a second until an accurate shot can be had.

Lupher stresses that the technology is not just an attachment to existing firearms. “The algorithms that govern how the gun performs is tailored specifically around the firearm components,” he says. “This is a built-from-scratch type of system.”

Much of the recent innovation around firearms has been focused on gun safety. The Smart Tech Challenges Foundation in Silicon Valley earlier this year issued an X-prize-like $1 million challenge for high-tech inventions— sensors and such—that can reduce gun violence by preventing anyone other than the gun’s owner from using it.

A few months ago, German manufacturer Armatix found itself the target of gun rights advocates’ ire when news spread about its iP1 pistol, which can only be fired after the owner enters a PIN code on an accompanying watch worn by the shooter. The gun disables itself if it’s more than 10 inches away from the watch.

(Tracking Point does offer an option to install a password-protected code on the company’s scopes, similar to that used to unlock an iPhone.)

Like Tracking Point, other companies have zeroed in on advancing the technology in video-recording scopes or ballistics computation, to provide a more accurate shot. “But they have a long way to go to be a comprehensive firearms solution,” Lupher says. “You don’t approach what precision-guided firearms can do until you have total integration.”

To expand its sales and marketing efforts, Tracking Point raised $29 million in venture capital last month from investors such as Austin Ventures, McHale Labs, and Genesis Inventions. (The company had previously raised $35 million last year.) While the use of guns and debate over restrictions is a divisive issue on the political stage, Lupher says it has not hurt the growth of the company, which is based in Pflugerville, TX. “We see very strong advocates in our investor base,” he says. “A lot of our employees are enthusiasts in the market.”

To order a firearm, customers must first fill out an application form. Tracking Point contacts each applicant personally in addition to taking a deposit for the purchase. “We speak to all of our customers directly and make sure they are a good fit for our community,” says Oren Schauble, the company’s director of marketing. “The firearm then ships to a dealer, who performs the [required] background check when the customer picks it up.”

The inspiration behind Tracking Point’s technology comes because founder John McHale missed a shot taken on a Thomson’s gazelle during a hunting safari in Tanzania in 2009. “He was convinced that technology should be able to help him shoot longer distances more effectively,” Lupher says.

McHale, a tech entrepreneur himself who sold companies to Cisco, among others, called on Lupher, a software engineer who had worked for Motorola and American Airlines, to help develop a prototype. By July 2010, they had developed a firearm that could hit targets as far away as 1,000 yards. Tracking Point was founded the next February.

The company now has 86 employees, a large portion of whom are engineers. Tracking Point began offering its firearms last year, selling about 500 units with a plan to have sales “in the thousands” this year, Schauble says. The company manufactures the firearms systems at a 48,000-square-foot facility at its headquarters and sells them at prices that start at $9,950 and can go into the $20,000 range.

Hunters are Tracking Point’s primary customer base at the moment. “It’s a traditional, slow-to-adopt market,” Lupher says. “As we persist in the market and build a reputation for quality, we see that momentum building.”

In the meantime, the company is making inroads with military customers, including a pilot program with the U.S. Army, which purchased six units to installed in their XM2010 Enhanced Sniper Rifle.

“In the long term, we see the military as a significant portion of our market,” Lupher says.

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