Smart Bullets

The “Mini-Me” of smart-bomb technology is ready to leave the lab

Illustration: Emily Cooper; Source Material: Sandia National Laboratories
Click on image for a larger view.

A team of engineers at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, is ­completing a testable prototype of the world’s first laser-guided ­bullet. Like a “mini-me” of smart bombs, this patented technology has some of the same computerized control and guidance features found on proven Gulf War weaponry, such as the Paveway series of laser-guided bombs. 


An infrared laser illuminates a target, which the bullet’s optical sensors follow. An onboard tracking chip calculates the course corrections, carried out by four actuator-controlled fins on the bullet’s body. The end result, says Larry Shipers, manager of system technologies at Sandia, is a bullet that could improve its shooter’s marksmanship by 98 percent, at distances between 1 and 2 kilometers. 


Shipers says the technology has already cleared a hurdle that experts had said couldn’t be overcome: the survival of the battery and chip, despite their being fired out of a .50-caliber rifle. Launch tests found that the munition’s innards did indeed stand up to the crushing 120 000 g-force acceleration and 344.7 megapascals (50 000 pounds per square inch) of pressure as the bullet comes hurtling out of the barrel. The next step is to find a commercial partner that can turn the ideas now being bench-tested into a field-ready bullet. 


“We believe we can get to a full-up prototype using primarily existing technology,” says Shipers.


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