Two military research labs have been racing to revolutionize rifle accuracy and range by developing the first-ever guided bullets – a technology that could potentially give any hunter sniper skills, if made public.
In February tests, a 4-inch-long prototype from Sandia Labs demonstrated it can change direction in flight and hit a target more than a mile away, thanks to an optical sensor in its nose and fins for guidance. The sensor locates a laser trained on a distant target, while the bullet’s brains process the data and steer the fins.
But the Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency (DARPA) has also been quietly conducting testing of its own bullet, EXACTO -- the Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance – due to deliver results as soon as September, FoxNews.com has learned.
The Pentagon research arm’s ambitious aim is a guided .50 caliber bullet that will introduce unprecedented accuracy at extremely long ranges, unhampered by crosswinds or a moving target.
Like Sandia’s approach, DARPA’s bullet can change course during flight, using a real-time guidance system and control software that tracks and directs the bullet. And EXACTO can work with a conventional sniper rifle.
U.S. sniper teams have an excellent record on the battlefield, including impressive triumphs like the 2009 rescue of Captain Richard Philips thanks to simultaneous exact shots.
This technology will let snipers engage moving targets at higher speeds, and at far greater range in tougher conditions than is currently possible.
Acquiring a moving target, such as an enemy in an accelerating vehicle, is already not easy. Add high crosswinds and the dusty terrain typical of Iraq and Afghanistan and you’ve got a real challenge.
Yet speed and accuracy are crucial; any shot that fails to hit a target can potentially reveal presence and increase the risk to troop safety.
If tests of the DARPA bullet and its optical sighting technology succeed, the limits of current sniper ranges could be left in the dust. It will allow a greater range, improving accuracy and reducing target engagement times fivefold.
EXACTO could also improve sniper safety by widening the range of viable hiding locations for sniper teams. The program intends to accomplish this with minimal changes to current operational concepts and preserving the existing two man team approach of observer and shooter.
DARPA fabricated the first EXACTO demo last year, a successful proof of concept with a high quality hardware simulation.
Now development is in phase II: Defense contractor Teledyne Scientific & Imaging, LLC was awarded $25 million to build and test a complete system including the required optical sight, the guided .50 caliber projectile, and the aero-actuation controls, power sources, optical guidance systems, and sensors.
While EXACTO is being specifically tailored for snipers, it could be applied to larger caliber guns. It also has great potential for air, ship and vehicle mounted systems.
Sandia’s program is no slouch, of course.
Brian Kast and Red Jones, two hunters who also happen to work as engineers at the National Lab, developed this bullet and built it with commercially available parts.
According to their patent, the self-guided bullet they built is accurate from half a mile away to within eight inches, while a normal bullet could be off by approximately thirty feet in “real world” conditions.
Not only did the battery and electronics work in their tests earlier this year, the plastic sabots provided a gas seal in the cartridge -- protecting the bullet’s fins while it launched and successfully dropping off after leaving the barrel.
Unlike guided missiles, where corrections during flight can be slow, the Sandia bullet does not rely on an inertial measuring unit and corrections can be made thirty times a second.
Pitch and yaw are based on mass and size at a set rate. As the bullet flies down range it pitches less -- and the accuracy actually improves the greater the distance to target.
In order to remove the spin that ordinarily allows rifle bullets to fly straight, Jones and Kast’s design puts the center of gravity forward and includes the fins that create aerodynamic stability.
Their self-guided bullet is not yet up to military speed, however. Currently, it can reach Mach 2.1 (about 2,400 feet per second) using standard commercial gunpowder. The team believes that custom gunpowder could bring it up to military standard.
Meanwhile, Teledyne and DARPA are firing on all cylinders. The contractor is to release results of phase II testing by Sept. 24.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie.
Allison Barrie consults at the highest levels of defense, has travelled to more than 70 countries, is a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees and now the author of the new book "Future Weapons: Access Granted" covering invisible tanks through to thought-controlled fighter jets. You can click here for more information on FOX Firepower columnist and host Allison Barrie and you can follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie.