Bird's Eye View of the Battlefield: Reconnaissance Round Will Give Soldiers a Look at What's Ahead

Now a Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) project is developing a novel way for small ground units to see past obstacles. Called the "reconnaissance round," it would let soldiers use small artillery weapons almost like a periscope. They could fire skyward a device that transmits images of nearby terrain back to a laptop computer, which is standard equipment now among infantry units.

The reconnaissance round is the idea of Charles M. Stancil, a senior research engineer at GTRI's Aerospace, Transportation and Advanced Systems Laboratory.

"The typical situation an infantry unit will encounter is a small number of hostile forces, and the unit does not know exactly where the enemy is," Stancil said. "Soldiers will be able to fire the recon round and have photos relayed to them right over the battlefield so they can see from a vertical perspective how the enemy is positioned."

Currently, a ground unit requiring aerial information has to go up the chain of command to request satellite images or aerial photos from an uninhabited aerial vehicle such as Global Hawk. The process is time-consuming, and equipment use is expensive, Stancil says. By contrast, the recon round promises to be quick, convenient and relatively inexpensive at $1,200 per device.

The 2-pound, 6-inch-long reconnaissance device, made from off-the-shelf parts such as digital camera components, would be used in weapons like mortars that launch shells high in the air. Far above the battlefield, a separation charge opens a parachute, and the surveillance device floats down, transmitting digital images as it descends.

"It can detect a human being from 1,800 feet in the air," Stancil said.

Typically deployed at a height of about 1,800 to 2,000 feet, the reconnaissance round has a field of view of 600 feet by 400 feet and can view terrain as far away 3.1 miles (5,000 meters). The device sends back four to five digital photos before it hits the ground, after which it self-destructs to prevent use by an enemy.

Currently, no such shell-based reconnaissance devices exist in the military arsenal, Stancil adds.

The reconnaissance round is mechanically analogous to an illumination round, which is typically fired from a mortar and uses a flare suspended from a parachute to light up the area below. Although the recon round has good low-light performance, it could be used in conjunction with an illumination round in extreme low-light situations.

Researchers are now testing and validating the recon round, now entering its second year of development for the Office of Naval Research (ONR). A working prototype has been successfully test-fired from an 81-millimeter mortar at a military range.