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Sandia’s New Smart Bullet

by John Reed on January 31, 2012

In case you haven’t seen it, Sandia National Labs is working on a self-guided bullet for small arms that can hit targets a mile away. Kinda like a small version of the Army’s Excalibur smart artillery round.

The four-inch, dart-like round uses tiny fins and an optical sensor in its nose to follow a laser beam all the way to its target, similar to the way a laser-guided bomb finds its target.

Think you can build it, then Sandia’s two researchers who are developing the round, Red Jones and Brian Kast, want to talk to you.

Click through to watch a video of the round and read more on it from a Sandia National Labs press release:

Most bullets shot from rifles, which have grooves, or rifling, that cause them to spin so they fly straight, like a long football pass. To enable a bullet to turn in flight toward a target and to simplify the design, the spin had to go, Jones said.

The bullet flies straight due to its aerodynamically stable design, which consists of a center of gravity that sits forward in the projectile and tiny fins that enable it to fly without spin, just as a dart does, he said.

Computer aerodynamic modeling shows the design would result in dramatic improvements in accuracy, Jones said. Computer simulations showed an unguided bullet under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a half mile away (1,000 m away) by 9.8 yards (9 m), but a guided bullet would get within 8 in (0.2 m), according to the patent.

The prototype does not require a device found in guided missiles called an inertial measuring unit, which would have added substantially to its cost. Instead, the researchers found that the bullet’s relatively small size when compared to guided missiles “is helping us all around. It’s kind of a fortuitous thing that none of us saw when we started,” Jones said.Plastic sabots provide a gas seal in the cartridge and protect the delicate fins until they drop off after the bullet emerges from the firearm’s barrel.

As the bullet flies through the air, it pitches and yaws at a set rate based on its mass and size. In larger guided missiles, the rate of flight-path corrections is relatively slow, so each correction needs to be very precise because fewer corrections are possible during flight. But “the natural body frequency of this bullet is about 30 hertz, so we can make corrections 30 times per second. That means we can overcorrect, so we don’t have to be as precise each time,” Jones said.

Testing has shown the electromagnetic actuator performs well and the bullet can reach speeds of 2,400 ft/sec, or Mach 2.1, using commercially available gunpowder. The researchers are confident it could reach standard military speeds using customized gunpowder.


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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark January 31, 2012 at 11:42 am

Let the Bullet bending begin.


tiger January 31, 2012 at 3:14 pm

You thinking Angelna Jolie & her curving bullets too?


blight January 31, 2012 at 3:26 pm

I guess. I was thinking more Avatar: The Last Airbender, where people with special powers can control the elements, or physical objects comprised of their particular element. Thus earth-benders could throw rocks, and the more advanced metal benders could tear ships open.

Or Angelina Jolie works too.


Eric January 31, 2012 at 1:00 pm

my guess would be a customized weapon 12.7mm or larger. (That's a .50cal for the rest of us)


howard January 31, 2012 at 1:48 pm

if no one told me…i’d think 50Cal immediately.


Raraavis January 31, 2012 at 1:49 pm

What is the application for this? A sniper with a .50 cal can already hit precision targets at a mile. This is a larger, infinitely more expensive rifle to do the same thing. There is no rocket or explosive payload on the round so what are you trying to destroy with it.

What ever happened to the individual mini-rocket concept that would let each soldier carry several self-guided mini rockets. Basically a stick grenade size launcher that could fire a small explosive precession rocket a couple hundred yards.


tiger January 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm

With the ability to guide a bullet you take out the wind calculation & make a hit on a moving target easier.


David February 1, 2012 at 10:26 am

I agree that this tech lends itself more towards mini-rockets (like old gyrojet weapons), solving the problem of acuracy. Guided 20-30mm rocket propelled round would make great long range sniper rifle with negligible recoil and muzzle blast.
With sufficient fast moving target tracking, this tech may be applicable to aircraft cannons too.


Skyepapa January 31, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Just because it's limited to (presumably) 12.7mm now doesn't mean that refinement won't get it down to 7.62 or 5.56 within some reasonable amount of time.


Puncheur January 31, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I'm guessing this isn't for room clearance.


jumper January 31, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Depends on how far away the room is…


crackedlenses January 31, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Cue the personal laser jammers…..


blight January 31, 2012 at 3:11 pm

A beam-riding bullet would make machineguns really scary…and probably compensate for weapons that are less-than-accurate, such as the AKM. Not like AKM users will have magazines of laser-guided rounds any time soon…


Jacob January 31, 2012 at 5:31 pm

Wouldn't rapid-firing these things from a machine gun be a waste of expensive ammunition as opposed to using them in a sniper rifle?


PMI February 2, 2012 at 11:23 pm

It would definitely mean no cone of fire/beaten zone.


Awesome July 10, 2012 at 10:26 pm

I doubt AKM users would want it/ could afford it anyway. They are using an AKM afterall.


mpower6428 January 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm

anybody see that movie "runaway" with tom selleck and the blonde from "dirty dancing" ?


TinkersDam February 2, 2012 at 8:37 am

Recall that it was a fire-and-forget IR round, though. Like a tiny AIM-9.


Lance January 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm

That's just so fun and awesome. Soon a foxhole will be a death trap for enemy solders.


chris January 31, 2012 at 4:33 pm

This is ment for tanks isn't it?


blight January 31, 2012 at 4:36 pm

ATGMs have no problems finding tanks.


Jim37F January 31, 2012 at 5:41 pm

but a 120mm sabot has slightly longer range, plus a tank typically carries a lot more main gun rounds than ATGM carriers carry missiles


blight February 1, 2012 at 11:53 am

Does it? A TOW can engage (at great risk) at ranges roughly equivalent to a tank main gun; the risk mostly because wireless TOW was not funded in the '90s.

Most ATGMs today are smaller because we place a greater importance on portability, and in some cases, soft-launch than we do long range.


major.rod February 1, 2012 at 4:06 pm

TOWs are at 4500m (unclassified) now. They exceed main gun range.

Liam January 31, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Hey Ahab….you can run but you can't hide


jrexilius January 31, 2012 at 5:09 pm

Missing discussion of the optical sensor, motors for fin movement, processor for calculations, power source for processor..

While I can think, off the top of my head, of a few solutions to some of those components, I'm still curious what they used.


USNAVYAZ January 31, 2012 at 5:59 pm

"Computer simulations showed an unguided bullet under real-world conditions could miss a target more than a half mile away (1,000 m away)"

Really? They needed a computer simulation to tell them this? Everyone knows it "could" make a difference depending on WHO is pulling the trigger.
And on that note, half of a mile is roughly 800 meters, not a 1000. Also, you could make it even cooler with bigger numbers if you give it to us in inches!
Sorry for the sarcasm but the article deserves it.


major.rod January 31, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Interesting tech but its has issues. One not discussed is that the laser is an issue. Anyone knows that recoil impacts your point of aim. The laser is going to have to be independent of the shooter especially for a large caliber weapon. Anyone who's fired one knows how difficult it is to get back on target especially if you have to do it before the bullet gets there.


Will February 1, 2012 at 6:58 am

Or put the whole thing on a tripod


major.rod February 1, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Have you fired a .50 from a tripod? Restablishing sight picture BEFORE the round hits is no small task. It's the primary reason snipers have spotters and tank commanders provide spotting corrections to their gunner.


PMI February 2, 2012 at 11:39 pm

That's why god invented sand bags. ;)

FWIW TOF at a click is just over a second and half.

That being said I wouldn't focus on the 1,000m quotes in the release. Think more along the lines of the ability to make those 2.5K shots commonplace. At that range TOF is pushing 7 seconds.


stephen russell January 31, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Being laser guided can be a real pain to hit.
Cant point & shoot.


Uncle Bill February 1, 2012 at 12:30 am

I really don't get the what's the application comments. Your in a JLTV, the RWS is fitted with a rapid firing gun designed for this new round, the gunner designates the targets with his touchscreen and the gun slews hitting each target with out hitting anything else, gunfight over. Use some imagination.


William February 1, 2012 at 8:26 am

They're right, though. What's the point, other than being a kewel new toy? What does it do for us that, say a networked laser target designator on an M-16 doesn't? This is not a bad idea for long-term development, but in the short run, pointless. Exciting to read about, but doesn't really change anything yet. And how much money is it going to soak up before we decide it's not technically feasible yet?


Warthog February 1, 2012 at 4:07 am

A-10 equipping these rounds and a SniperXL targeting pod would be interesting, though it might require a 2 seater conversion for a RWO.

There was a CalPoly AIAA student competition design for an AC-130 replacement called Firefox that shows a possible future with rounds like this. Used laser guided 40mm CTA (which would roughly equivalent to 25mm) for the small guns and a 105mm CTA cannon on the belly fixed forward, firing the equivalent to an Excalibur round. The PDF’s are near the bottom of the following URL.



NeocConVet February 1, 2012 at 10:42 am

Interesting, perhaps in the future we can fire one from Ft. Carson and take out an idiot in Iran.
Think about it..stepping out the arms room door… giving it the address and a photo… bang… "go get em"! Whats for chow today Sarg? A short time latter a news broadcast of one less A-hole in thiis world.


Doubtom February 1, 2012 at 11:32 am

Just another of our many "stand-off weapons" proving that we're losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to face each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, (indiscriminately I might add) snipers can do the job from over a mile away, aircraft can down the enemy from over the horizon (without even seeing the enemy plane except for a radar blip) ,,, we're missing out on all the romance of killing, the blood spattering, limbs separating from the body, guts all over the place.
Does this mean that we'll start pinning medals on drones, or sniper rifles? The more our technology is responsible for successful kills the more we have to recognize its contribution by glorifying it with medals, right?? Isn't that how the game is played? All "War is a racket".


blight February 1, 2012 at 11:41 am

How did you get from standoff warfare to Smedley Butler?


major.rod February 1, 2012 at 4:10 pm

The left leaning looney mind comes up with all kinds of relationships. Just watch a direct TV commercial for the train of thought.


Rich McKinney February 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Fox News just posted a photo of it. http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2012/02/01/smart-b

Looks smaller than 50 cal.


Doubtom February 1, 2012 at 6:49 pm

Just another of our many "stand-off weapons" proving that we're losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to do it facing each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, snipers murder from a mile away and pilots can down an enemy aircraft while its beyond the horizon. The less we have to do with direct combat, the closer we come to awarding those "hero" medals to machines. There is no glory in war but this new warfare makes it almost like a child's electronic game; we are becoming totally detached from our butchery and this makes us feel good.


Doubtom February 1, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Just another of our many "stand-off weapons" proving that we're losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to do it facing each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, snipers fro a mile away, and planes can down the enemy before he clears the horizon. Guess we should start awarding the hero medals to the machinery.


Patrick Busche February 2, 2012 at 12:58 am

Wonderful technology for small arms. I'm sure that 5.56 NATO rounds with this capability will only cost about $400 per each bullet.


Doubtom February 2, 2012 at 2:49 am

Just another of our many "stand-off weapons" proving that we're losing our zeal for murdering each other if we have to do it facing each other. Drones kill from thousands of miles away, snipers from a mile away and planes can down an enemy before he clears the horizon. Next is awarding hero medals to the machines of war.


TomUK February 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm

Basically, you're still going to miss quite often – particularly if the laser wobbles a bit. (More collateral, I suspect).


Riceball January 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm

Probably something in the 20mm plus caliber range.


Jay January 31, 2012 at 1:01 pm

Typically a sniper rifle. The Barret .50 uses a 5.5 inch long round. Sniper rifles have a lot of interchangeable parts. the ability to modify one is pretty easy.


blight January 31, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Other interesting applications might be allowing riflemen to designate targets for weapons further back. See a bad guy? Lase it for the machinegun. Alternatively, it might make plunging fire more accurate with someone to do the lasing.


Will February 1, 2012 at 6:55 am

That sounds like having specialized weapons with very expensive ammunition held in reserve, probably at company HQ. Not very much more available than the sniper teams in every battalion.


DTW January 31, 2012 at 2:18 pm

You guys realize there's such thing as cartridge length? .50 BMG is NOT 5.5 inches of projectile… You really lack understanding of 'sniper rifles'….


tiger January 31, 2012 at 3:24 pm

Yes, Lee Harvey. Even you could now make the same shot in Dallas…….


burkefett February 1, 2012 at 12:17 pm

Actually, I'm pretty sure it would be much harder to hit a target within a moving vehicle due to the need to penetrate glass. Bullets act in different ways when they hit glass, and while an actual sniper using a plain old spin-stabilized bullet can do the math and figure out the angle and amount the bullet will deflect on impact, a "smart bullet" that overcorrects dramatically in its trajectory would hit the glass at a different angle. This could easily cause the round to miss the target entirely.

A similar issue will exist if you attempt to penetrate concealement or barricades with a round like this. The lack of spin stabilization and the excessive length of the projectile will make it extremely prone to upset when it impacts just about anything, a trait that every fin-stabilized small arms round has shown (see the original ACR project in the 1970s). The"long rod" penetrators fired by many main battle tanks also have a tendency to upset upon striking a target at a sharp angle or when passing through something as insubstantial as a bush.

Finally, I'm not particularly convinced as to the termnal effectiveness of the round. While the 4.5 inch length mean that the sectional density is high on the surface, I can't believe that electronics and actuators have anywhere near the mass and density of lead, which leads me to believe that, while computer simulations may show it being accurate at 1,000 meters (and what were they using to make their accuracy standard, a boy scout with a pellet gun? There are hundreds, if not thousands, of shooters perfectly capable of hitting a man-sized target at ranges well beyond 1,000 meters, which modern equipment can help them hit with the first shot fired), the round may well not have the impact energy to assure a kill.


Jay January 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Yes. I ment cartridge. Wrong choice of words.


major.rod January 31, 2012 at 6:06 pm

The Punisher or XM25 isn't a smoothbore. The round actually counts its spins coming out of the barrel so it knows when to explode.


Will February 1, 2012 at 7:07 am

Another thing, the XM-25 shoots a much bigger (30 mm) round at a much lower muzzle velocity. At 2400 FPS, it's already going faster than an 7.62 mm round when it leaves the barrel of an AKM.


DTW February 1, 2012 at 12:33 am

oh ok then…forgiven :P


blight February 1, 2012 at 11:48 am

Holding match-grade 7.62 NATO (or in other countries cases, .338 Lapua) is likely to be equally rare. As for price…remember we were slamming TOW missiles into buildings in the early years of OIF because we had no other hard attack capability on Humvees. Not cheap either. Though now that Carl Gustav might be trickling into the ranks…


blight February 1, 2012 at 11:50 am

People already associate guided weapons with "assassination", be it by laser or by GPS. There was, and probably still is a furor about "smart bombs" floating about the internet in peacenik circles.


major.rod February 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm

There are ways around it but now dedicating two soldiers to hit a target isn't always a winning solution. My point is the technology is immature and needs work before finding it's place.


blight February 1, 2012 at 7:09 pm

Even better. I knew they outranged WP 125mm (but they have ATGMs…)


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