Ears to the ground

A lightweight electronic device able to detect the precise location of snipers may soon undergo trials with UK military forces, The Engineer has learned.


A lightweight electronic device able to detect the precise location of snipers may soon undergo trials with UK military forces The Engineer has learned.

Developed at Foster Miller, a US-based subsidiary of Qinetiq, the so-called Ears system is based on a tiny acoustic sensor that is able to identify the distance and direction of a sniper fire within a fraction of a second.

According to a company spokesman the portable, low-power system does this by detecting the sound of an initial gunshot then the shockwave from the muzzle of the weapon being fired. It then runs this data through an onboard processor and, because it knows how much faster sound travels than a shockwave, is able to pinpoint the position of the attacker.

In addition, the system is not confused by surrounding noises and is able to accurately locate snipers in a 360° view, even while mounted on a vehicle travelling at 50mph.

Donald Steinman, director of transition programmes for Qinetiq North America, added that the size, weight and power profile of the Ears device sets it apart from competing radar, infrared and acoustic systems.

‘Ears represents a completely different approach,’ he said. ‘It’s about the size of a deck of cards, weighs just over 6oz and total power consumption is less than 1W. Competing systems can weigh a couple of hundred pounds, and use 25W to 50W.’

The device is designed to be mounted on vehicles or worn by individual soldiers, and information gathered can be relayed to troops in a number of different ways, said the company’s UK spokesman. While a swift audio cue might be more appropriate for a ground soldier, more complicated visual information could be displayed on vehicle-mounted systems.

‘It could be routed to a PDA positioned on the vehicle’s dashboard that may also be your route finding map system, but as soon as a shot rings out it will flash red and give you a 360° target like a dartboard, shade in one of the segments and give you a distance ranging.’

‘It can also handle multiple attacks — if you’ve got one coming in from 10 o’clock and one at two o’clock it will give you segmented targets.’



Qinetiq confirmed that the MoD has been studying the product but was unable to confirm further details. The MoD declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Steinman confirmed that the system is already being used by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘The man-mounted version is fully operational in Iraq, while the vehicle system is currently deployed in Afghanistan with US special forces,’ he said.

He added that the deployment comes at a time when the US is increasingly concerned about the high level of sniper and ambush attacks on its troops. The Pentagon recently requested an additional $1bn (£500m) to buy a range of systems to combat the threat posed by snipers.

Following its success on the battlefield Ears was recently selected by the US army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Centre as a component of its flagship future soldier project, Future Force Warrior.


The system was unveiled in the UK alongside other future military technologies earlier this month at London’s National Army Museum.

Other exhibits included the Lifesaver, a water bottle that instantly sterilises contaminated water, and a system of underwater acoustic cat’s eyes developed by DSTL that could be used to warn ships and submarines away from mines.

The same technology could also be used to locate oil fields or transatlantic cables, and help dolphins and whales avoid being caught up in fishing nets. Sea trials have shown that the cat’s eye can reflect back a tuned signal, revealing its location, to existing sonar systems — such as those mounted on vessels.

Whales and dolphins use sonar to navigate, so if the cat’s eye was attached to fishing net, they would be able to pick up the signal and avoid the area.

Subsea Asset Location Technologies has been set up specifically to commercialise the development of the technology.