West Virginia University scientists have developed a new “smart projectile” that can be fired from traditional weapons by soldiers on the battlefield and then transform during flight into unmanned aerial vehicles, which can provide unprecedented battlefield surveillance through miniature cameras.
This week, they took a giant step forward in testing their work when they were invited by the U.S. Army to test fire prototypes at one of America’s most prestigious military proving grounds.
News accounts have created the popular conception of an unmanned aerial vehicle as a large, odd-looking pilotless aircraft controlled by operators from locations on the other side of the planet. The WVU team has a different vision that, when turned into reality, will put smaller UAVs in the hands of American soldiers on the battlefield to save lives by providing previously unavailable real-time data.
Mridul Gautam, WVU associate vice president for research, the principal investigator of the U.S. Department of Defense-sponsored research project, explained that the University has been invited by the U.S. Army to test its concepts with firings at the famous Yuma Test Center in Arizona.
“Why not have a new class of UAVs that can be fired from the same platforms that soldiers have in their possession?” Gautam said. “That would save time, increase availability of surveillance and save soldiers’ lives. This is something that is small, easy to move, but still loaded with electronics like cameras and GPS.”
Wade Huebsch, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, and co-principle investigator on the research project, said that the small smart projectile munitions idea has merit because the Army has so many grenade, mortar and shell launch capabilities.
WVU Drs. Jay Wilhelm and Pat Browning, after weeks of exhausting paperwork, preparation, packing and shipping, headed out to the 1,300-square-mile Yuma facility to put their project to the test under battlefield conditions.
It will be the first time the WVU UAVs will be fired from a 60-mm military mortar in a controlled demonstration.
“We have wanted to go out for some time,” Huebsch explained. “We’ve never actually fired them from a mortar before. About a month ago, we got an invitation to go out to Yuma to fire the first generation of smart munitions and we are very excited to see how they will do. This is a big step towards actual implementation in the field.”
The WVU scientists are invigorated by the opportunity because testing at the Yuma site will reveal a great deal about the capabilities of its smart munitions that they have dubbed the HERO – Hybrid Extended Range Ordnance.
Huebsch explained that the facility is able to track fired rounds with radar and cameras with zoom lenses so the flight characteristics, distance and stability of the test rounds can be accurately assessed.
The WVU projectile features wings that deploy in flight after firing from a 60-mm mortar that assist in extended range and control, and a tiny camera in its nose that designers anticipate will one day provide soldiers with pictures of the battlefield that were previously unavailable, providing valuable intelligence about the challenges ahead and saving lives and resources in the process.
“We will definitely learn what the rounds can withstand and how it survives,” he said. “If the wings open in the test, it will be a huge milestone for us.”
The WVU work is funded through a $2.2 million grant it received from the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center known as ARDEC.
Huebsch may not make it to Yuma in time for the tests, but will be close by. He will be in Las Vegas presenting a paper on the research at a meeting sponsored by the American Institute of Engineers. WVU’s growing expertise in this arena attracted an invite from the Institute for their “Armed UAS Conference.”
The Yuma Test Center will put the WVU work through its paces. According to its website, the center “boasts the entire infrastructure for fully and realistically testing nearly all weapon systems in the ground combat arena. Most importantly, the proving ground has it all for a wide variety of areas: artillery, manned and unmanned aviation systems, armor, tactical vehicle, electronic countermeasure and air delivery testing. That’s a powerful combined arms synergy, one that is efficient and cost effective for military equipment developers.”
The center is located near the Arizona-California border in the heart of the Sonora desert. In a typical year, tens of thousands of artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired, 36,000 parachute drops take place, more than 130,000 miles are driven on test vehicles and nearly 4,000 air sorties are flown.
WVU researchers remain excited about the project and said that in addition to the obvious military implications, the innovation could be a valuable tool for homeland security as well as civilian applications.
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