Military turns to microtech for guidance

By SCOTT R. BURNELL, UPI Science News  |  Sept. 10, 2002 at 6:05 PM
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HOUSTON, Sept. 10 (UPI) -- If Army-sponsored research into microscopic structures bears fruit, the concept of "smart bombs" will expand to cover all sorts of weapons systems, researchers said Tuesday.

The program focuses on using micro-electromechanical systems, which can take up a fraction of the space on a single computer chip, to perform the gyroscope and inertial guidance functions of far more massive and expensive devices, said Albert Warnasch, a manager at the U.S. Army's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.

Such MEMS devices, as they are called, could provide nearly any missile or tube-launched weapon with the kind of precision targeting properties demonstrated by laser-guided bombs and other "smart munitions," Warnasch told the NanoTech 2002 conference.

"Munitions in future gun systems have to survive 20,000 (times the force of gravity). You can make MEMS withstand gun shock, but no one's made them withstand 20,000 Gs yet," Warnasch said. "The real trick is making sure the (accuracy) parameters don't shift in that launch environment."

The Army's $100 million program aims to provide about 90 percent of the military's future inertial guidance needs, Warnasch said, with devices projected to cost about $1,200 apiece -- or $1,500 if Global Positioning System abilities are included. Compared to current devices, that could save the armed forces more than $1 billion over 15 years, along with easing maintenance chores and other benefits, he said.

The program estimates about 500,000 MEMS devices will be needed between 2005 and 2010, Warnasch said, a volume that requires close cooperation with industry on a couple of fronts.

"You can't design a MEMS gyro or accelerometer without having the (production) guys sitting right there with you, because it won't end up being mass-produceable," Warnasch said. "But not even those 500,000 units will get us to our cost target without running those production lines for high-end commercial products."

The program, which began in September 2001, already is a few months ahead of schedule thanks to a decision to drop one industry team early, said Vicki LeFevre, a researcher at the Army's Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. Focusing on the remaining teams, one led by Honeywell International Inc. of Morris Township, N.J., and the other by L3 Communications of New York City, should allow the program to more quickly achieve a common MEMS standard so that the teams' devices will be interchangeable in the field, she said.

The space community also is interested in MEMS-based inertial guidance systems, due to their light weight and low power consumption, said conference attendee Michael Eiden, head of the Mechanisms Section of the European Space Agency's mechanical engineering department. Researchers in both the space and military arenas need to achieve several orders of magnitude improvement in their MEMS devices' ability to prevent gyroscope drift and other crucial factors, he told United Press International.

The performance goals of space- and military-related MEMS guidance can be reached, Eiden said, but efforts to ensure repeatable results are hobbled by the fact that neither community requires the mass quantities called for in commercial applications.

"Those companies that have mastered (MEMS) techniques for their applications aren't interested in the (space) side of the business," Eiden said. "The problem is getting the people with the large production facilities involved in those fields where there is less of a return, but where the results would be very beneficial."

NanoTech 2002, co-hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and the Center for Nanospace Technologies, looks at both MEMS and nanotechnology, the science of manipulating matter at the atomic or molecular level. The conference will conclude with a workshop where attendees will address several application areas, including energy and life sciences, and try to identify cost-effective MEMS or nanotech alternatives to current applications.

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