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Artillery Eyes Provide Sight to Ground Forces

January 2004
By Cheryl Lilie

 

A black and white photograph taken from a prototype reconnaissance round shows a person standing in a sod farm near Atlanta in the testing range for the device. 

“Point and shoot” takes on new meaning to the infantry soldier.

A “camera in a bullet” is being developed that will allow infantry troops to see beyond obstacles that obstruct their view. The device, fired like an artillery shell, takes aerial images of the surrounding area as it descends then relays them to ground forces in a matter of seconds. Built from commercial off-the-shelf products, it would provide ground commanders with a cost-effective and timely situational awareness tool in combat.

Charles M. Stancil, senior research engineer, Aerospace, Transportation and Advanced Systems Laboratory, Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), Atlanta, is developing the reconnaissance, or recon, round. Stancil, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, thought of the idea for the device while serving in Vietnam. “I flew helicopters in Vietnam, and I spent most of the time hanging under the rotor system looking down on the battlefield. That’s a pretty good deal to see things that the guys on the ground can’t see,” Stancil reflects. “I had this picture in my mind … what if the guys on the ground could see what I could see?” Once finding himself in ground combat, Stancil recalls, “I had a very intense need to see over a hill that was about 50 meters in front of me, and I promised myself that if I ever had the opportunity to fix that, I would.”

It was not until the mid-1990s that Stancil’s vision seemed possible. “Not until the digital processing technology became feasible … that I had a serious intent to try to do anything about it. And when I found out about these digital imagers, it was like a light bulb turned on,” he explains.

Weighing approximately two pounds, the six-inch-long recon round contains an image sensor, camera lens system, parachute and four batteries. Additional accessories include a laptop computer, patch antenna and receiver unit.

It takes approximately 17 seconds for the camera to take, process and transmit a picture to the laptop. Typically, four images are captured with each round. A complementary metal oxide semiconductor image sensor and a five-element lens system form the camera used in the round. While the camera was found to produce good low-light-level images, it can be used in combination with an illumination round to provide better night pictures. The photographs are high resolution and can be produced in black and white or in color. However, researchers find that black and white photographs may be better because they take up less file space, allowing the device to process the images and get them to the laptop faster.

The five-element lens is the same type of lens used in commercially available cameras. “The reason for a five-element [lens] is that we reduce the image down to pass the iris and then spread it out so that we get a good light footprint on the imager,” Stancil explains. “If we over expand, we lose image quality, and if we under expand, we get a ‘port-holing’ phenomenon, which also degrades image quality.”

The most important factor in determining the appropriate lens, however, was the space available inside the projectile. The largest glass diameter that developers could use was just less than one-half an inch. GTRI looked into zoom lenses but found them to be too expensive. “What we were trying to do was come up with a technology that can give us something below $1,000 dollars a round,” Stancil says, “and I think we have it here.”

The recon round is launched from an 81-millimeter mortar with launch and coordinate instructions that are programmed on a laptop computer. Developers used the 81-millimeter because they found the size to be right for development purposes and because both the U.S. Marine Corps and the Army use the weapon. The round can be modified for use in a 60-millimeter mortar, a 40-millimeter grenade launcher or a 4.2-inch mortar.

GTRI also invented the software program. User interface software is placed on compact disc and uploaded to a laptop computer, a standard item for infantry troops. The soldier can input launch as well as imaging scheduling instructions. Each round can be programmed separately.

As the recon round is launched, programming triggers the separation sequence at the appropriate time—usually 20 to 25 seconds after launch. The round can be launched to an altitude of 1,800 feet at a maximum force of 10,000 Gs. Using approximately four grams of black powder, the tail blows off, releasing the parachute that pulls the camera out of the shell and establishes a vertical orientation. During the decent, the parachute does not oscillate or spin, like conventional parachutes, but remains stable for imagery collection and relay. The device falls at approximately 28 feet per second to an altitude of 300 feet, at which point the signal to the receiver is lost.

Once a picture is taken, the image is relayed to the receiver, which is a box about eight inches by four inches, through a patch antenna that is connected to the laptop through a universal serial bus port of the laptop. The software also orients the picture so that north is always up on the computer screen. It can be programmed to place the picture on a grid, orient the picture to magnetic north, or orient it to the observer target.

Developers plan to make the recon round self-destruct to avoid use by the enemy once it lands. This capability will not be fully developed until the final engineering stage.

 

Using an 81-millimeter mortar, infantry troops can fire the reconnaissance round over hilltops to see an enemy who is hidden from view. The images captured by the device are relayed to ground soldiers in less than a minute providing both timely and accurate situational awareness. 

Stancil confirms that numerous tests have been conducted with the mortar. To save time and reduce cost, the researchers developed a nitrogen-gas-propelled launch to perfect the user-interface software without firing from a mortar for each test. This also allowed developers to test the round on a nearby sod farm in Atlanta rather than at a military base.

Because it is built from commercial off-the-shelf parts, the recon round can be made for approximately $700 each, much less expensive than unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in use today. Although Stancil does not intend for the recon round to replace UAVs, he notes that the round can process needed information faster than can a UAV, which must be set up, launched and flown to a point of observation. In addition, it takes time to relay satellite images back to the infantry. UAVs also require special training and special logistics to operate. With the recon round, “mortars already exist,” he declares. “They are set up and are ready to fire at a moment’s notice. So if you need to have an image over an area, it’s just like calling for a normal fire mission, and that can be done very rapidly.”

Maj. Patrick Lavigne, USMC, manager, Firepower Thrust, Expeditionary Warfare Operations, Office of Naval Research (ONR), Arlington, Virginia, agrees. “The recon round can provide a small unit commander the ability to gain timely situational awareness without requesting support from additional assets such as the unmanned aerial vehicle.”

The recon round is in the last stages of development at ONR. The device interests Maj. Lavigne because the naval service includes the Marine Corps, which has a robust ground combat capability. The program is currently undergoing preparations for a Military Utility Demonstration with ONR. While those involved in the project are optimistic about the recon round’s ability to improve responsiveness and situational awareness, further demonstrations with potential users and final reports still determine its fate. “Until then, forecasting use of this technology in military operations is premature,” Maj. Lavigne states, “Not until we see the results of the testing can we be absolutely sure the technology is ready for the warfighter’s kit bag.”