The US military has poured millions upon millions of dollars into squad-based tactical UAVs—the kind deployed by troops for close-range ASAP reconnaissance—over the past few years, developing the likes of the Puma AE and Black Hornet. But ST Kinetics has just unveiled a clever surveillance system that uses modified 40 mm rounds—and it could do the job of those micro-UAVs at a fraction of the cost.
Dubbed the Soldier Parachute Aerial Reconnaissance Camera System (SPARCS), these 40 mm camera-equipped rounds are designed to be fired from grenade launchers already employed throughout the US armed services, as well as law enforcement and civil disaster management agencies. Rather than explode upon impacting an enemy position, a SPARCS round instead climbs to an altitude of 150 meters after being launched by an infantryman, then deploys a small parachute and activates its on-board 360-degree camera to transmit images back to a squad-based PDA or HMD, or really any computing device with an attached wireless receiver.
As the ST Kinetics site explains:
The projectile carrying the camera will be deployed to acquire top down aerial views of the target area. Images captured are automatically stitched together to provide a wider aerial image of the target area. When used in built up areas, information on rooftops, behind cover and alleys is effectively captured in real time for better situational awareness.
The SPARCS' video feed is encoded, not encrypted, due to its disposable nature. Like the Scan Eagle, a SPARCS round only transmits video data—it doesn't store it locally. That makes the round useless to enemy forces if captured—or rather, if picked up off the ground. What's more, since the round only has a range of about 450 feet, chances are the enemy will already be already within firing distance when it lands.
Granted, tactical UAV's can offer better picture quality and far longer loiter times than the SPARCS, but this system is less expensive, easier to carry, and provides situational information significantly faster than any squad-based UAV can. There's no word yet, however, as to whether the DoD will explore adding them to its arsenal—it's reportedly already busy testing the company's air-burst mortar rounds. [Stengg via Slash Gear, IEEE]