Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The 'Smart' Bullet is on the Horizon

by Andrea Campbell

Look Up in the Sky!

New technology is a slow and steady march no matter who develops it. I am always torn when a new weapon is developed, and the subject of today’s spotlight is no less frightening and anxiety-driven for me because of its dichotomy of being both useful and deadly. We’re talking about a bullet for machine guns—currently—that guides itself to a target more than a mile away, with accuracy to within eight inches.

The Stuff of Movies

This missile-like bullet was the stuff of fiction such as with the futuristic movie Runaway, a 1984 film written by Michael Crichton, a writer who had an uncanny ability to see what’s coming down the pike. The missile of today, however, can really twist and turn its way around objects, making up to 30 corrections per second.

Can You Imagine?

Developed for the military or law enforcement by Sandia labs, Red Jones, one of the researchers who worked on the laser-guided bullet says, “Where we’re headed, we’re going to be limited only by our imagination.”

Throughout history under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, tens of millions of contract dollars went to companies for just such a weapon. Previously, engineers discovered that the M2, a belt-fed machine gun and standard issue in the U.S. Army 80 years ago, when fired at a distance of 1,000 meters—more than half a mile—would often miss the target by as much as roughly 10 meters.

Small but Smart

Only three years in the making, the prototype bullet is amazingly small—only four inches long and, at an inch-and-a-half in diameter, is a 50 caliber bullet. It operates using an optical sensor, which seeks and stays with a laser beam focused on a target. It also creates outputs from the optical sensors in order to steer the projectile to the target.

“The sensor,” according to Sandia labs, “sends information to guidance and control electronics that use an algorithm in an 8-bit central processing unit to command electromagnetic actuators. The actuators steer the fins that guide the bullet.” This would be similar to a miniaturized guidance system, normally utilized by actual missiles.

Adam Firestone, an army veteran, claims that: “All of a sudden now you’ve got a way to eliminate the collateral damage issue.”

Will we see a form of these miniature “smart bullets” on the streets for criminal purposes? It’s highly likely but only initially used by the upper most, financially-able suspects like drug runners or pirates. Of course now there are still engineering problems Red Jones explains, that will need to be overcome and certain practical considerations such as: can it be tossed or fall off the back of a truck and still function?

Sandia is looking for investors but from all accounts, expect to see this in an action movie in the near future, and heaven forbid, in the far horizon, hear about it in a criminal justice context.

As seen on the Sandia website: Various licensing and partnering options are available. Please contact the Intellectual Property Department to discuss.

For more information, you can download this PDF from Sandia

Photo images: Sandia labs


Donna Weaver said...


I enjoy your posts immensely. I always learn something new and amazing. :-)


Anonymous said...

Rest easy, Andrea.
50-Cal weapons are the stuff of the military or terrorists, not the average US citizen.