What’s New In Pew Pew Pew: Self-Guided Bullets
Humankind’s quest to get better at destroying stuff – which we document in this preposterous weaponry column – has taken another mighty step today, as US government research agency Sandia National Laboratories has announced a self-guided bullet for small-calibre, smooth-barrelled firearms.
The best bit? It’s guided by ‘lasers’.
There are three kinds of self-guided missiles: those that lock onto radiation emanating from the target; those that emit radiation (for example, radar) themselves; and those relying on a friendly third party – for instance, a signal from the launch platform or a laser beacon placed on the target by friendly infantry.
These are known jocularly as ‘fire-and-forget’, because if you launch them roughly in the right direction, they rarely miss.
(Missiles can also be guided remotely by a human operator, using a tiny camera mounted on the missile to sight the target, but to quote last year’s bone-headed alien-invasion flick Battlefield: Los Angeles, “none of that matters right now”.)
But the disadvantage of these missiles is that you have to launch them from a plane, a ship or a submarine. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) can be shoulder-fired but aren’t guided and rely on the shooter’s accuracy; in January 1975 at Orly airport in Paris, Carlos the Jackal fired an RPG at an Israeli airliner but mistakenly hit a Yugoslav plane instead.
Importantly, the 0.5-calibre bullet won’t be used in rifles, because – as we explained on the recent Radio Hour instalment of this column – the barrels of rifles contain grooves (the ‘rifling’ that gives the weapon its name) that twirl the bullet in mid-air to ensure a straight flight.
On the contrary, a guided bullet has to be able to turn in flight. So, to ensure aerodynamic stability, the new bullet flies more like a dart – it has a forward-leaning centre of gravity and tiny fins.
Using the third-party guidance principle, the bullet has an optical sensor in its nose that detects a laser beam placed on a target. The sensor feeds information to an eight-bit central processing unit that uses an algorithm to command electromagnetic guidance and control mechanisms. These steer the fins, guiding the bullet to the target.
Oddly enough, the bullet’s small size makes it less challenging to calibrate than a larger missile, because its more frequent pitching and yawing allows more flight-path corrections. In computer simulations, an unguided bullet under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a kilometre away by nine metres, but a guided bullet would get within 20cm.
You guys! If your target is wider than 20cm (as most people are), you can probably hit it with this bullet from a frickin’ kilometre away.
Sandia engineers Red Jones and Brian Kast came up with the idea because they’re both avid hunters. They envisage the bullet being used by military, law enforcement and in recreational hunting. Of course, it would never, ever be used for assassinating politicians or conducting insane spree murders.
Sandia is currently seeking a private company to assist with further testing and marketplace development. Stark Industries, perhaps?
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