Soldiers in battle could soon be using mortar shells as periscopes to view terrain and troop positions behind enemy lines.
The reconnaissance round, developed by researchers at the US Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), is made from off-the-shelf parts such as digital camera components.
The device weighs less than a kilogram, is just over 15cm long and is fired high into the air using a compressed gas mortar launcher.
Above the battlefield a separation charge opens a parachute and the surveillance device floats down, recording and transmitting digital images before it lands.
The reconnaissance round can detect a human being from around 550m up. Using a wireless link it transmits digital pictures back to laptop computers, now carried as standard equipment by infantry.
Ground units wanting an aerial view of the enemy currently use satellite images or photos taken by UAVs.
Requesting this information can be time consuming, the information dates quickly, and gathering such pictures is expensive. Information from the reconnaissance round is fast, accurate and relatively inexpensive at £800 a round.
To minimise cost the camera uses a fixed rather than a zoom lens and all pictures are taken as black and white images. This last ensures they have smaller digital files, enabling faster transfer of data to the laptop.
‘The parachute provides a sink-rate of 17-20ft per second to ensure a stable ride for the camera,’ said Charles Stancil, a senior research engineer at the GTRI’s Aerospace, Transportation and Advanced System Laboratory. ‘The signal can be at any frequency. It is in a digital format transmitted asynchronously at one Gigabit/sec.’
The system was developed following Stancil’s experiences of trying to predict the enemy’s position while fighting with the US Army in Vietnam, he said.
The technology is extremely useful when fighting small pockets of guerrilla forces that move quickly and can be hard to spot using existing surveillance systems. Once deployed the round can view an area with a radius of 4.8km and send back four to five images before it reaches the ground. When it comes to rest the device is able to self-destruct to prevent it’s being used by enemy forces.
The technology used to launch the camera is the same as that used for illumination rounds which consist of flares attached to a parachute.
Whilst the recon round has good low light performance, it can also be used in conjunction with flares to take pictures in the dark.
The technology is currently being evaluated by the Office of Naval Research and a working prototype has been successfully tested on a military range. Full scale engineering development is planned for later this autumn.