Smart weapons have been growing smaller since the first guided cruise missiles took off with a roar. Today's soldiers may soon shoot farther and more accurately with a new "smart bullet" that uses tiny fins to steer itself toward anything targeted by a laser beam.
The 4-inch-long bullet has guidance and control electronics to steer its fins in midflight as it homes in on a target. Continual course adjustment means the bullet can hit laser-designated targets at distances of more than a mile ― a huge leap over military-assault-rifles such as the M-16 that have an effective maximum range of just over a third of a mile.
"We have a very promising technology to guide small projectiles that could be fully developed inexpensively and rapidly," said Red Jones, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
This is not one of those bullets that get their accuracy from spinning as they are fired out of a "rifled" gun barrel that has grooves to create the spin. Instead, it resembles a dart with a forward center of gravity and tiny fins that allow it to fly accurately without spinning. A tiny nose sensor allows the bullet to home in on laser-designated targets to deliver the accuracy and range of an expert sniper.
As the bullet flies through the air, its early motions allow for course corrections 30 times per second. But its flight path also steadies the longer it's in the air ― known to gun experts as "going to sleep" ― to ensure better accuracy at longer range.
"Nobody had ever seen that, but we’ve got high-speed video photography that shows that it’s true," Jones said.
Using the patented system, built from commercially available parts, a bullet can hit within eight inches of a target more than half a mile away. Unguided bullets could miss a target at the same distance by almost 10 yards.
Jones came up with the idea while hunting with Brian Kast, a fellow engineer at Sandia National Labs. The two engineers enlisted more colleagues to help develop the system, and Sandia is now looking for a private company to help complete testing.
The engineers may have to consider the appropriate gun to pair with their smart bullet. Most modern-day guns, with the exception of some shotguns and less-lethal riot guns, use rifled bores instead of the smooth bores required by the new bullet.
But the Army has already begun putting smarter weapons in the hands of soldiers, with a backpack-size suicide drone capable of loitering overhead, and an airburst grenade launcher that explodes its round at precise ranges. If Sandia Labs can perfect its smart bullet, it is likely to find eager buyers among both the military and law enforcement.
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