Flying-rifle robocopter: Hovering sniper backup for US troops
Xbox-controller killdroid has ARSS name, though
Weavers, pilots, snipers ... the machines want your job
But there's an alternative approach. Snipers can also shoot from a helicopter overhead, thus gaining the ability to rapidly move to the viewpoint they need rather than spending ages sneaking and climbing. This method has been used for decades by maritime special-forces units: Britain's SBS has long had specialist helicopter snipers trained to dominate the decks of oil rigs or ships being stormed by their colleagues. Last week, US Navy SEAL snipers shot dead three Somali pirates standing around a captured American merchant skipper in a lifeboat, firing from the deck of a destroyer nearby in that case. These days, even ordinary infantry are getting in on the act.
But a manned helicopter and crew are expensive, as are snipers good enough to hit targets from a moving platform. Furthermore, even the greatest sniper isn't as accurate firing from a vibrating helicopter as he is with a good rest on solid ground: thus the helicopter needs to be comparatively near the ground and the target, possibly exposing it and its crew to danger.
Not with the ARSS, however. For this test, the little Vigilante has been fitted with a lightweight stabilised remote turret, the Precision Weapon Platform, which is to be controlled by a soldier on the ground near the target - separate from the ground or airborne station handling the copter - who will use an Xbox controller to aim and fire.
In the PWP turret is a simple semi-automatic rifle firing .338 Lapua Magnum slugs - the sniper's sniper bullet. The turret and its software handle all the bullet-drop calculations, vibration compensation and so on: first-shot kills are expected at several hundred metres, and the human operator won't need any advanced marksmanship skills.
In many situations you wouldn't want to put a manned helicopter with several people in it just a few hundred feet above hostile rooftops: if you did, you might insist that it fly fast and low, deliberately keeping out of enemy sight lines as much as possible - and making itself useless as a sniper platform.
But this copter is totally unmanned. The control station can be safely miles away or fifteen thousand feet up. You can have the riflecopter go just where you need to get the shot and stay there as long it has fuel. It can follow ground troops about, effectively providing an overwatch sniper genie on a magic carpet, able to zoom to whatever point necessary and nail anyone they can point out with their Xbox controllers. If it gets shot down itself, so what? No troops lost, and a new Vigilante, turret and rifle aren't going to break the bank.
The Army boffins don't say, but there would also seem to be some potential for the ARSS to set down on inaccessible rooftops or other perches and work as a stationary sniper for a while, presumably increasing its accuracy and saving fuel. It can do hands-off landings and takeoffs, apparently.
About the only thing the system's missing so far is stealthiness, but that's not necessarily a massive loss in the context of urban gun battles, hostage takedowns, boat or vehicle stops etc. (Any more than it is for ordinary helicopter snipers.) And there are some quieter robocopters around, and more on the way.
All in all, the helicopter robosniper could be a big success story if it (cough) gets off the ground successfully. Nobody knows just how many military pilots are going to find their jobs stolen by robots in coming years, but it could be quite a few. Now it seems that snipers may need to start worrying too.