Ready, Fire, Aim: Darpa Moves Closer To a ‘Smart Bullet’
It’s an understatement to say that being in a sniper team is a high-pressure job. You’ve got to calculate wind resistance, distance, bullet trajectory and other physics obstacles in a few instants.Then you’ve got squeeze off the shot — sometimes from hundreds of yards away. So the futurists at Darpa figure the sharpshooters could use some “smart” bullets to help the snipers out.
On Thursday, Teledyne Technologies received a $25.45 million contract from Darpa to design a .50 caliber bullet that can better hit moving targets while the wind swells. It’s part of the next stage of the EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance project, or Exacto, begun in 2007 to give the military what Teledyne chairman Robert Mehrabian termed “ultra-high precision and affordable guided weapons” in a prepared statement. It’s show-and-prove time: Teledyne’s got to deliver its prototype bullets by September 2012.
Still, it’s not clear just how Teledyne intends to make a bullet search out its target. Laser guidance systems? Computer chips? Boeing’s smart bomb, the Joint Direct Attack Munition, relies on GPS to reach its programmed destination; the smart .50-cal round could be analogous to an innovation that made airstrikes far more reliable. And one way around the smart-bullet problem is to use smart grenades, like with the XM-25 grenade launcher that guides a chip-enhanced grenade to a precise target. Or precise enough: unlike a bullet, a grenade just needs to be in the general vicinity of a target and its shrapnel can do the rest.
This isn’t Darpa’s only sniper-enhancer. The agency has long eyed a sighting system that can compensate for crosswind interference with a bullet’s trajectory. Making it talk to a bullet is an additional challenge — not to mention an expensive one. Each JDAM attachment kit to turn a regular old bomb into a smart bomb costs in the tens of thousands of dollars.
But Darpa might be making progress on that goal. Lockheed Martin, which also has a piece of the Exacto contract, is getting closer making Darpa’s “One Shot” super sniper scope a reality. Earlier this year, it got $6.9 million to deliver 15 sighting modules by October 2011 that can “measure everything that influences a bullet in flight, and rapidly calculate and display the aim point offset and expected crosswind variability in the shooters rifle scope.” As the name suggests, the One Shot program has to be able to get snipers to hit their targets on the first try despite adverse wind resistance, air humidity and target mobility.
If Lockheed succeeds on One Shot, it’ll probably generate relevant data for Exacto. Whether that means curving bullet trajectories or compensating for human error like something out of Wanted is less certain. So is how to control costs. After all, a bullet that’s meant to be used only once can’t have so much technology affixed to it that it’s prohibitively expensive. Snipers may not hit their targets all the time, but they’re still pretty good with plain old dumb rounds and cross-eye sights.
Photo: U.S. Army