Flying-rifle robocopter: Hovering sniper backup for US troops
Xbox-controller killdroid has ARSS name, though
Flying killer robots are numerous these days. The machine flyboys are mostly armed with relatively light and precise weapons, but still in the tank- or anyway vehicle-busting league. Now, however, there's a droid whirlybird in development which is armed only with a sniper rifle intended to fire single aimed shots.
The new issue of Popular Mechanics reports on the robosnipercopter, dubbed the Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System (ARSS) in a fit of American insularity. (This is not unusual.) The magazine says that the ARSS programme, underway since 2005 within the US Army's Aviation Applied Technology Directorate, is to enter flight tests this summer.
The goal of ARSS, as stated by the Army, is to produce a system "having the ability to accurately engage single point man sized targets with an airborne UAV ... [giving] the ground based soldier the ability to have a high-point survivable sniper at their disposal when needed. An airborne UAV can rapidly achieve lookdown angles and viewpoints required for sniper engagements, while controlled from the troop on the ground."
The Army boffins already had a Vigilante robocopter on hand as a result of their Armed VTOL UAV Testbed Integration (AVUTI) effort. This produced a Vigilante (essentially an automated Ultrasport 496 kit chopper) remotely controlled from a station which can be set up on the ground or strapped into a manned transport helicopter for better radio line-of-sight. US Apache attack ships can now be fitted to control unmanned aircraft, too.
The original AVUTI Vigilante was armed with 70mm rocket pods and a laser designator: weapons on the same sort of level as the Hellfire missiles used in the famous Predator and Reaper roboplanes, or the Fire Scout droidcopter. They are fairly light in air-weapons terms, but still cause a big bang when they hit. That's fine for a lot of traditional military jobs like taking out a strongpoint or an enemy vehicle.
But in modern warfare, especially urban warfare, you often need to use a lighter touch. Hellfires, Hydra rockets, "Viper Strike" miniglider smartbombs and so on cause collateral damage - deaths, injuries and destruction - which may wipe out any gains achieved by killing the target. For this reason, military snipers have made a huge comeback in recent years: their long-ranging accurate rifles (and advanced sneaking skills) let them clear away hostile snipers, machine gunners, ambushers and so on without hurting anyone else or smashing the place up. Snipers are also a preferred option for stopping enemy vehicles: a high-powered bullet into the engine does the job just fine, and lets you interrogate the occupants afterwards.
Traditionally, military snipers have tended to move about on foot, using concealment and camouflage to evade the attention of surrounding enemies. In urban fighting, they often work from rooftops or other high points in "overwatch" over the largest possible area. This does have the downside that they take a long time to get into position.
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.