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Self-guided bullet could hit laser-marked targets from a mile away


January 31, 2012

The self-guided bullet developed by Sandia National Laboratories has been fitted with an LED, to check if the embedded battery and control electronics can survive the flight

The self-guided bullet developed by Sandia National Laboratories has been fitted with an LED, to check if the embedded battery and control electronics can survive the flight

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A group of researchers at Sandia National Laboratories have built a prototype of a small-caliber bullet capable of steering itself towards a laser-marked target located approximately 2,000 meters (1.2 miles) away. The dart-like design has passed the initial testing stage, which included computer simulations as well as field-testing prototypes built from commercially available parts.

The four-inch (10 cm) long projectile is to be used with smoothbore arms, meaning ones with non-rifled barrels. Rifling involves cutting helical grooves in the barrel to give the bullet a spin that, thanks to the gyroscopic effect, improves its aerodynamic stability and accuracy. In a self-guided projectile, however, such spinning movement would prevent the bullet from reliably turning towards the target when in flight. For this reason, the group of researchers lead by Red Jones and Brian Kast decided to use a dart-like design that includes tiny fins to allow the projectile to fly straight, without a spin.

While positioning the center of gravity towards the front of the projectile aids the stability, the task of directing the bullet to its target is handled mainly by the little fins. The on-board guidance and control electronics use the information passed on by an optical sensor located in the nose to calculate the flight path. An algorithm in an eight-bit central processing unit is used to control electromagnetic actuators which, in turn, move the fins.

Larger guided projectiles, such as missiles, rely on a device called an inertial measurement unit (IMU) that uses a set of accelerometers and gyroscopes to gather information on velocity, spatial orientation and gravitational forces. Fitting a small-caliber bullet with an IMU would make it extremely expensive. That, however, turned out not to be necessary, as the bullet's size appears to act to its advantage, when compared with larger projectiles.

Any projectile's flight dynamics depends on its mass and size. Both these factors influence the rate at which the projectile pitches and yaws. The rate is slower in larger projectiles, and since fewer path corrections can be done in flight, they need to be very precise. With the smaller projectiles yawing and pitching at a faster rate, as many as 30 corrections per second can be made, and less precision is allowed.

Computer simulation results suggest that, under real world conditions, a traditional bullet is likely to miss a target located 1,000 meters (0.62 miles) away by as much as 9 meters (9.8 yards), while a self-guided bullet would get within 20 cm (8 in) of that target. Oddly enough, the accuracy improves the further away the target is. "Because the bullet's motions settle the longer it is in flight, accuracy improves at longer ranges," Red Jones explains. Of course professional snipers can handle such distances pretty well even now, but the bullet could make their jobs much easier.

Field tests showed that electromagnetic actuation allows the projectile to reach the speed of 2,400 feet per second (730 meters per second) using off-the-shelf gun powder. This falls short of military standards, but the research team is confident that customized gunpowder is all that is needed to give the bullet that extra kick.

The researchers needed to devise a way of checking whether the on-board battery and the electronic components can actually survive the flight, and what they came up with is quite ingenious. They attached a tiny light-emitting diode to the bullet and shot it (took pictures of it, that is) in flight during a night field test. The main image at the top of the page illustrates that the components are robust enough to make it.

Although so far the test results are promising, there are still some engineering issues left to tackle. Sandia is now on the lookout for a private corporate partner that would help make their guided bullet available to the military, law enforcement agencies and some hardcore recreational shooters.

The video below shows the bullet in flight.

About the Author
Jan Belezina Formerly in charge of Engadget Poland, Jan Belezina's long time fascination with the advance of new technology has led him to become Gizmag's eyes and ears in Eastern Europe. All articles by Jan Belezina

That repeatedly fails the cost-effectiveness test. 1. It must be mind bogglingly expensive. 2. It is too heavy to carry in meaningful numbers. 3. Most people can not keep a laser on a man sized target at a mile.


I will take fifty rounds to try on illegal cell phone users driving cars at fifty meters and report back, gotta agree with slowburn keeping a laser on a human size would be impossible, difficult at 100 meters without a tripod, I have a wicked green laser, no way hand held at 100 meters, let alone a mile

Bill Bennett

I don\'t imagine those parts would be mind boggling expensive at all. Definitely much more than a regular bullet but for a sniper shooting a high priority target at 1.5km distance I imagine the price is nothing, certainly not restrictively expenensive. One bullet one kill is a sniper\'s goal, it\'s not as though they are going to use these for supressing fire.

The weight would probably be similar to a similar sized bullet. Have you seen the bullets a barret uses? They are huge!!!

Number three is a good point point but I am sure there are ways around that.


Considering Gizmag reported sometime back, the longest effective sniper shot being something like 2.4 km with current ammo. This bullet is a long way short of that.

As for pointing the laser, while it may be next to impossible, to hand hold one on a human at 1 mile. I would assume that would become a spotters job with a tripod mounted laser type of range finder. I am not sure how you get over \"Hmm, whats the green and red spots on my partners back\"?


Designate target, tell the computer to keep the laser on it, squeeze trigger, repeat as needed.

Alan Belardinelli

I have to agree with nickhansard above, the artical has already stated that it was \"built from commercially available parts. \" so i doubt cost would be too high, and i also agree that the projectile is actually smaller than that of a Barratt M82A1 .50cal round so size is also not going to ba an issue and im sure that with carefull design it would be possable to pack a few of such rounds into a magazine. As for the issue of hitting a target with a laser at 1 mile away i agree it would be very difficult to maintain a steady aim with a hand held devise at that range even a tripod mounted laser would only need to move a small amount and this could send your round way off target... But who said that the laser designator had to be a mile away? - think along the lines of laser designators used by special forces to pinpoint targets for guided missiles, As long as the target has a laser marker on it the round can do the rest.

Christion Baker

Actually the round should be cheaper then a conventional round long term.

Apparently some of the jar heads posting here have never heard of painting a target where once painted the modestly mobile or still target remains painted while the painter heads for safer ground.

Of course there are many more advantages to this approach. Most important of all is over the horizon targets for many round small arms where counter response will be severely challenged.

An armor piercing explosive round can appear from any direction and be launched from any direction.

A two man team becomes an enormous threat whether friend or foe.

The second man can be anyone of small drones.

Talk about lone killer!


I don\'t understand the usefulness of this. Is this only for assassinations in a crowd? Because if you can get line of sight with a laser why not just get line of sight with a weapon?? Or is it supposed to be easier to conceal/dispose of the laser than a weapon (ok I can see a beefy rifle/machine gun but can the laser be aimed at a greater distance than say a handgun?)

I must be missing something but this seems like a product without a case study, without an applied use.

Now if the bullet had an explosive...but there\'s that pesky weight issue again.

So- huh??

Bub Gold

Assuming this technology becomes cheap enough, public officials will have to avoid open settings at all times if they want to stay alive. Likewise it would be wise for anyone in an open place to be as anonymous as possible. Almost everyone is important in some way to some organization. Picking off members of any competing organization, political, commercial, or religious would be way to easy and hard to track.

Throw in IR or UV lasers and the victim (or their friends) wouldn\'t even see the dot.

Stuff like this could change the public world. I don\'t like this kind of change, but it is unavoidable.

Rustin Haase

The utility of this proposed round is in the hands of the user. On the one hand, if this technology\'d been around at the time, Heer Hitler, \"Poppa Joe\", Pol Pot, or any of a number of tyrants and dictators would\'ve been pushing up daisies much sooner in their bloody careers. However, in the hands of dictators or terrorists ... . Mankind will always find newer and more efficient ways of killing one another. It\'s up to the good guys to be one step ahead of the bad guys, or else ... .

Myron J. Poltroonian

The most expensive part is the training of the sniping team, not the ammo. And also, as the bullets are guided, they would actually need to shoot LESS practice rounds regularly.


A weapons system such as this allows for multi-part deployment that can be dispersed over a larger geographic area. The forward observer can designate the target, remaining more agile due to the lower equipment weight, while the physical weapon and ammunition remains farther to the rear, where it is easier and safer to reprovision.

David Gwaltney

Everyone has got it. This was research substance. Production will be very cheap, have greater range and speed and better guidance. It will reduce collateral damage. It could end all wars. The laser dot can be less visible and placed closer on a tracking pod. This weapon is more dangerous than all the nuclear weapons of the world. It\'s also the Holy grail of conflict.

Dawar Saify

Keeping a laser on a person can be computerized. Camcorders have stablizer and facial recognition ability, so can a laser marking device.

Watch out for counter measures that follows the laser beam upstream to its source.


A few years after this thing has been in use, the crime rate would drop. Terorists would be selling t-shirts. Just hand out lazers to all the millitary, and police units around the world. Criminals would all fear THE DOT! (lazer dot)


No reason why the laser can't be part of the targeting sights. If you can point a gun at someone that far away (and you can) then you can point the laser at the same time. This is cool... unless you're on the receiving end.

Craig Jennings
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