On Monday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), basically the US military's mad scientist division, announced it had cleared another milestone in its quest to develop self-guided bullets. The agency released footage of live-fire tests conducted earlier this year showing .50-caliber bullets making sharp turns in midair.
DARPA wants the new bullets to be an easily deployable technology, so it's designed them to be compatible with standard smooth-bore rifles and fit into traditional cartridges. The agency says their most recent tests suggest that even a novice shooter using the bullets for the first time could hit moving targets, but the stated goal is to make sniper's jobs easier and eventually adapt the technology to other calibers. The dream would be an arsenal of guns that the soldiers don't even have to aim.
Self-guided weapons technologies have been around for quite some time. The first American laser-guided bombs, which used optical sensors to hone in on targets, were launched during the Vietnam War. Scaling down the electronic systems needed to put these technologies in something the size of a bullet, however, has been a trickier task.
The first patent for a theoretically functional self-guided bullet was filed in 1997 by an academic. Rolin F. Barnett, Jr., now an associate professor of automotive engineering at North Carolina State University and head of Barnett Engineering, says that he first dreamed up his system as a graduate student, over two decades ago, as a personal challenge.
"I originated my work on the guided bullet in March of 1993," he says. "I was a graduate student at the time at Louisiana Tech University… The University had no desire to pursue it with me.
"The [first] guided system I considered was a type of optical system using a camera that was publicly available, but there were a variety of technical issues that prevented me from using that. [So] I came up with the laser-guided [system], wherein the laser is shined on the target and the reflection is seen by three or more eyes—laser detectors. They steer the bullet until the signal is equal between them. Thus it would be on target."
DARPA seems to have waded into self-guided small arms munitions around 2008, when the agency's first reported research contract on the subject popped up. The resulting project is known as the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance program (EXACTO), and aims to increase US sniper lethality from 90 percent at 2,000 feet in good conditions to 90 percent at 6,500 feet. The project was inspired in part by the poor firing conditions of windy, dusty Afghanistan and the risk of a missed shot leading to return fire capable of hitting nearby snipers.
That 2008 contract, a $14.5 million grant to a Lockheed Martin subsidiary known as the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, yielded an impressive public demonstration of a self-guided bullet four years later. Sandia eliminated the grooves in a modern rifle, which normally help a bullet travel straight by making it spin, and instead crafted the .50-caliber bullet to be front-heavy so it would move through the air like a dart. The heaviness at the tip of the bullet was acheived by installing a series of laser-detecting optical sensors, which would follow a laser trained on a target using an internal, eight-bit processing system running a simple control algorithm to guide external fins that make up to 30 directional corrections per second. The system allowed trained snipers to make 90 percent accurate shots up to about 6,300 feet away—and yielded some cool trajectory-tracking photos.
"The DARPA project, I think, experimented with my technology," Barnett says. "The one that was demonstrated at Sandia looked to be identical to my patent and had four eyes instead of three."
Barnett is so convinced that the technology at play was based on his own that he's tried to file for patent-holder compensation, but he says he was rebuffed by DARPA representatives.
"At this time, they have claimed to me that what they have [used technologically] is different from my patent," says Barnett, although he believes too little information has been released to tell.
The footage released this year stems from work by a separate contractor, California's Teledyne Scientific & Imaging, which first received $25 million from DARPA to work on self-guided bullets in 2010. The company released initial footage of their bullets last summer, although it's not known precisely how they differ from the Sandia ammunition. It's tempting to assume the technology involved is similar to the laser-guidance system demonstrated in 2012, but some commentators have noted that these new bullets appear to lack steering fins like the ones Sandia's bullets used, making their navigation, and thus their general technological basis, harder to decipher.
"I don't know about what they're using [now]," says Barnett, "because simply there's not enough publicly available information."
No one's sure if and when DARPA's bullets will be ready for use on the battlefield. But details of the still-active Sandia project on its website and in interviews with researchers suggest that the technology may be marketed not just to the military but to civilian law enforcement officials or even recreational hunters.
James DeShaw Rae of California State University Sacramento, who works on the ethnics and governance of smart weapons, says there's good reason to believe the bullets—if functional—could spread rapidly within and be openly embraced by the military sphere.
"If they are proficient in the stated aims of making it easier to hit the intended target and lessen the likelihood of unintended victims, they will be employed by armed forces and they will not face any regulations," he says, noting that precision arms are generally viewed as more humane and thus desirable. "If they are cost-effective, they will become the regular bullet of choice.
"If they are employed and then found to be ineffective or inaccurate, then their usage may be voluntarily curtailed, or outside watchdog groups could launch a campaign to have them regulated," he adds.
But barring that, Rae believes the only real incentive to limit the use of such bullets would be a concern about them falling into enemy, non-state, or civilian hands. And even if the bullets do require regulation, the amount of money and enthusiasm lavished on these projects suggest that such fears won't be enough to keep them out of usage entirely.
So it seems likely that we'll see self-guided bullets in use in the not-so-distant future—in war at first and from there, who knows?
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