Everybody remembers the ubiquitous TiVo set-top DVR boxes. They stored your favorite shows for future viewing — and were prime targets for exploration and hacking. Still, they were cool and interesting.
They’re also an example of small-footprint computers, many of which are Linux-based, that continue to march into our everyday lives. Developers: You’d better get ready for the next wave.
These devices are showing up in devices that do way more than sit on top of your entertainment center. For example, there’s the Parrot Quadricopter. It’s a four-rotor drone that sports a Linux-powered brain, sensor-controlled stabilization and a high-resolution color camera. It’s not a drone meant for the CIA, it’s for consumers. You fly the thing using an iOS or Android smartphone over its own on-board WiFi server. Yes, you can have your own drone for a few hundred dollars.
Or what if you hooked up a nano-sized Linux computer to some atmospheric/positional sensors, a laser range-finder, a vision system, some switches and a heads-up-display to calculate exactly when a .338 Lapua or .300 Winchester round should be sent downrange to hit a specific target at 1,000 yards or more? You’d get what’s known as a precision guided firearm, made by the Austin, Texas, company TrackingPoint. Three models are available, though they’re not as cheap as a Parrot. Prices range from $17,500 to $22,500.
TrackingPoint’s XactSystem also lets you watch real-time streaming video of the shot on a nearby tablet over a WiFi server built right into the system. Wouldn’t that be a great tool for mentoring novice sports shooters? It puts it pretty far up there on the technical geek scale as well.
According to ArsTechnica, XactSystem runs a modified version of the Angstrom Linux distribution with a variety of BitBake recipes and kernel modules to support the hardware sensor interfaces. It takes into account atmospheric, environmental, and physical measurements to properly calculate the necessary variables for a 1000+ yard shot, even with a completely novice shooter. Basically, you paint the target with a laser spot, then when the cross-hairs turn red (while you’re depressing the trigger), you align them with the laser spot. When the two spots touch, the round is fired.
What’s fascinating to me is how darned sophisticated these integrated computing platforms have become. Certainly this is the stuff of big-time military defense budgets. While XactSystem results from the work of a diverse and talented group of experts, its story began with a technology-oriented founder simply wanting to take better shots on a big game safari. After developing a few prototypes, the company realized that it was just starting to tap the system’s awesome potential.
When we talk about technology opportunities, we typically focus on working with developers, programmers and engineers for cloud-service companies, ISPs, corporate IT departments and mobile applications. Companies like TrackingPoint are venturing into unconventional computer-integrated territory, and demonstrating the opportunities that are out there.
I wanted to bring TrackingPoint’s story to your attention because I think it represents an ever growing sector of special-purpose computing technology, which you might investigate as a possible career choice. The skills required are diverse and specialized. Finding a spot could be pretty challenging, but once you get it — or invent it for that matter — it could be a lot of fun.
By the way, check out my colleague Michelle Greenlee’s recent story, “Is Your Next Development Platform in the Kitchen?” She shows how new integrated computing platforms certainly aren’t limited to firearms.