This self-guided bullet can chase you down from over a mile away

Illustration for article titled This self-guided bullet can chase you down from over a mile away

There was a time when increasing the distance between yourself and a sharp shooter bent on your extermination would significantly improve your chances of survival. But that time is coming to an end.


Government engineers have designed a bullet that can aim itself, correcting its own path mid-flight in order to connect with targets over a mile away. Is this the future of armed warfare?

The formidable projectile was designed by engineers Red Jones and Brian Kast of Sandia National Laboratories. And while this bullet is technically a prototype, preliminary tests cleary demonstrate that it has the potential to revolutionize the design of smart ammunition. Here's how it works:

Your traditional small-caliber projectile has grooves — called "rifling" — that cause it to spin and fly true as it passes through the air. The physical principles behind this behavior are the same ones governing the flight of a spiral pass in a game of football.

The guided bullet does away with rifling altogether. Instead, it relies on tiny fins, like the fletchings of an arrow. Each round of ammunition is housed inside a specially designed casing, which protects its fins until after it's left the barrel of the gun. You can watch the projectile shed its casing in the video featured here.

The incorporation of fins into the bullet's design means that each projectile behaves less like a football and more like a bar dart, or a little, four-inch missile. But unlike the missile, these projectiles can be fired from handheld weapons of .50 caliber or less; and unlike the dart, this bullet can use its fins to self-correct its path through the air up to 30 times a second.

Illustration for article titled This self-guided bullet can chase you down from over a mile away

These corrections are made possible by a laser-tracking optical sensor located inside the bullet's nose. Using an eight-bit CPU (also housed within the bullet) the optical sensor can communicate guidance information to the electromagnetic actuators that control the bullet's fins.

Collectively, these components allow the bullet to first detect and then actively seek out quarry that has been targeted with a laser from more than a mile away. That means that if there's a gust of wind, or the target moves, all the bullet has to do is find and follow the laser, which remains fixed on the target while the bullet is in flight.

Illustration for article titled This self-guided bullet can chase you down from over a mile away

These time-lapse photos photo reveal the bullet's performance in a nighttime field test. Affixed to the tip of the bullet is a tiny LED, which serves two functions. The first is to illuminate the bullet's trajectory, and help illustrate just how dramatically the bullet can alter its path in the course of its flight. The second is to prove that the bullet's various electronics can survive the bullet's launch; and the fact that you can trace the bullet's route indicates that they most certainly can.


What's more, preliminary tests suggest that increasing a target's distance actually improves the the projectile's accuracy by giving it more time to adjust its flight path. Aerodynamic simulations reveal that under real-world conditions, your typical unguided bullet is liable to miss a target over half a mile away by close to thirty feet. According to a patent application recently filed by Sandia, the self-guided bullet would bring that number down to just eight inches.

As of right now, Sandia is seeking private partners to complete testing on the prototype and bring the design to market for law enforcement, military, and recreational applications; and with numbers that impressive, it's hard to imagine they'll have much trouble finding the funding they need to make these bullets a reality.


Read more about the Self-guided bullet over at Sandia Lab News
[Spotted on WIRED]
Photos via Sandia National Laboratory



So what sorts of countermeasures would work against this. Ammunition hacking? Electromagnetic scrambling fields to fry the chip? (Presumably a blanket field would be problematic, but dishes could direct high-power pulses when they detected characteristic electromagnetic activity in the vicinity.)

Alternatively, countermeasure bullets could be designed that, instead of optical detection, targeted the electromagnetic signatures of the bullets themselves. (This would depend, of course, on how strong the bullets' EM fields are.)

This could spur an electronic ammunition arms race. Imagine a future, 50 years from now, where the dumb lead bullet is the latest ammunition revolution nobody's prepared for. (Of course, dumb bullets will probably never go away — too much weaponry already uses them.)

Come to think of it, any countermeasures that currently exist for guided missiles would probably be useful inspiration. (I know nothing about weapons or ammunition — all this speculation is strictly from the perspective of a science fiction fan.)