The War on Terror did not stop with the death of Osama bin Laden.
Although the U.S. Navy Seals’ raid this past May marked a milestone in the ongoing conflict, it also served as a reminder that, for the foreseeable future, the battle is not over.
Crucial to U.S. efforts are technological advances designed to neutralize threats and minimize American casualties in Afghanistan, Iraq and future battle zones. Rugged terrain, stealth and technology have changed the nature of combat, requiring the U.S. to continually tweak its strategies and armaments.
West Virginia University is poised to play a key role in these advancements, thanks to a multi-million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to upgrade some of its current weapons systems. The goal was to create a new line of smart munitions that would be ballistically fired like mortars or grenades but would transform into an unmanned aerial vehicle, capable of surveillance or payload delivery.
The new devices would combine the best features of autonomous drones and conventional weapons while offering easier transport and more efficiency.
Previous technology included the T-Hawk, a 17-pound, gasoline-powered micro air vehicle, not known for its stealth.
In 2009, WVU was awarded $2.2 million to work with United States Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, but more than research funding, the stakes WVU is playing for involve homeland security, freedom and human lives.
“I’m very proud of WVU and to be a part of this,” Wade Huebsch, an associate professor in WVU’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-principal investigator of the project said. “The ultimate goal is for the soldier to give the soldier this unique weapon and increase his safety out in the field.”
WVU’s challenge was multi-faceted. Along with creating new munitions that had increased range and more precise strike capability, WVU had to match its creations to existing military weaponry.
“The original idea is that the Army has all of these grenade, mortar and shell weapons,” Huebsch said, “could we take these existing weapons and make a massive leap forward in capability while still being able to use the same gun systems to fire the weapons? If so, this would significantly reduce the cost and the training needed to field the new weapon. What we’re creating is an entirely new class of UAV, a transforming projectile.”
WVU’s devices resemble 40- and 60-millimeter shells and can be fired using grenade or mortar launchers.
Because of their size, the weapons are easily transportable and their adaptability makes them capable of being launched and operated autonomously or with a guidance system, depending on the task. The shells’ fold-in wings deploy once airborne, and, although light and compact, they carry complex electronics such as cameras and GPS and also weapons. WVU’s devices became known as transforming projectiles because of their versatility and unique ability to use armaments as propulsion.
“There’s not anything to compare it to at this point,” Huebsch said. “It’s a small size and it transforms in flight, which is unique. It’s ballistically launched, unlike other UAVs, and ultimately it will be at very low cost.”
Mridul Gautam, principal investigator, predicts WVU’s devices will be invaluable as strategic tools.
“They can provide you with unprecedented, beyond the line of sight situational awareness on the battlefield,” he said, “which typically wasn’t available, unless you called in bigger (aircraft) or have some other means of reconnaissance.”
As crucial as WVU’s innovation was in creating a new defense tool, its personal connection was just as important.
To improve its munitions, the U.S. military had to find an organization that had expertise in a broad range of areas including, design, aerodynamics, structures, controls, propulsion, power and energy, electronics and communications.
WVU’s College of Engineering and Mineral Resources not only had that expertise but it had developed a reputation for exceeding expectations on military contracts, according to Gautam.
Gautam, associate vice president for research, had initiated a relationship with the DoD in 2005 and won several research awards of approximately $100,000 each over the next few years. The DoD was impressed with WVU’s work and, with the help of former Congressman Alan Mollohan, landed the first of its current multi-million dollar contracts four years later.
That’s just the beginning, according to Gautam, who hopes to establish deeper relationships with the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.
“The DoD was an area we had never explored but had many opportunities,” Gautam said. “You do two or three things right, they come back to you. You do bigger things right and other agencies will look for you. This is what has happened in this case.
“Our faculty have stepped up and just overwhelmed the sponsor with what they’ve delivered and delivered it in record time. The quality of their work has been outstanding.”
By Dan Shrensky
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