Members of the sniper unit of the Champaign County Metropolitan Emergency Tactical Response Operations (METRO) gathered last month for an unconventional target practice that was captured on video.
And, that was the point.
“The METRO team is a multijurisdictional SWAT team that is activated in response to law enforcement situations that require special equipment, training, and a team approach in order to ensure the best resolution,” said Officer Grant Briggs, of the U of I Police Department.
Travis Ross, the manager of Beckman’s Visualization Laboratory (Vis Lab), which is part of the Imaging Technology Group, was asked to join the sniper unit at the Urbana shooting range to record high-speed video as three different types of ammunition penetrated various barriers, representing different scenarios the snipers might encounter.
“The round is traveling at such a high speed, it’s hard to picture what’s happening to it as it’s traveling through the barrier,” Briggs said. “The high-speed camera gives us the ability to see what happens to the different bullets, what happens to the barrier, and how much debris is created. The results will aid us in selecting the proper equipment. We can be called to respond to a vast range of situations and it is imperative we select the right tool for the job.”
The Vis Lab was a perfect fit for the project and Ross was excited at the prospect of his first ballistics experiment.
“I had never done this before. I have always wanted to do ballistics but I just thought ‘What campus unit is going to need ballistics?’” Ross said. “But I never thought the SWAT team would need Vis Lab services.”
To assist Ross on his first ballistics project, John M. Huhn, the general manager of Motion Engineering Company, which sold the camera to the Vis Lab, offered his services to help set up the Photron FASTCAM SA-Z ultra-high speed camera and make sure things went smoothly.
They fired several test rounds so that Ross and Huhn could make sure the camera was capturing the desired data and to make sure the images captured were clear enough to be useful.
“The sniper bullets were flying at around 2,675 feet-per-second and were shot from a distance of 100 yards so the time from rifle to target was only about 1/8th of a second,” Ross said. “With that knowledge, we had to figure out how many frames per second was needed.”
“We figured out we needed 25,000 frames per second (fps) to capture it minimally, so we doubled that and did 50,000 fps and were prepared to up it, if needed, but that seemed to be fine. And then we could adjust the shutter speed in order to capture more crisp detail.”
“The longer the shutter is open, the blurrier a moving object will be,” Ross said. “We want to stop that blur to ensure a crisp image. So something that fast we have to have a very fast shutter speed such as 10 or 15 nanoseconds.”
Each video clip was actually a fraction of a second in real time. The set up provided a three-feet-wide window for the camera with the material the snipers were shooting through in the middle. “With the camera shooting at 50,000 frames per second, by the time the bullet enters and exits the frame, there were only like 200 frames,” Ross said.
The team wanted to test several types of bullets to increase their accuracy. Although each bullet weighs about the same, the bullets had different covers or “jackets,” and the interior composition varied, which effects how each bullet expands and how it separates on impact.
From preliminary viewing of the videos on site after each shot, Ross felt confident from the reaction of the team that they were getting the desired data from the clips. Briggs confirmed the team’s satisfaction a few days later.
“I am happy with the preliminary results,” Briggs said. “I am going to compile the results into a presentation that I will share with the other members of our unit. We will analyze the results and decide if we need to modify our round selection depending on each type of barrier.”
“As snipers, it is essential that we have confidence in the round that is being fired,” Briggs said. “We have to be certain it will strike where we are aiming and deliver the terminal performance necessary to resolve the situation. Our work with the Visualization Lab will give us confidence that the right round is being utilized for the situation at hand.”
The project illustrated what Ross likes most about his job.
“Probably the thing I enjoy about my job is figuring out how to do some of these difficult tasks that no one else does,” Ross said. “I’m delivering a product that makes people’s lives easier in some way or so they can learn something or be inspired by it to learn more. Like today, they will probably come back and want to do more research because some of the results puzzled them. People learn things that they never thought possible.”
Briggs confirmed he is considering other applications for the high-speed video equipment.
“I can see potential for analyzing other weapons platforms—perhaps less lethal weapons, pistols, patrol rifles, and things like that.”
Members of the sniper unit participating in the project: Briggs; Officer David Dameron, Parkland Police Department; Officer Jared Hurley, Urbana Police Department; and Lt. Jason Norton, UPD.