Popular Mechanics highlighted a few stories in the world of DIY weapons lately that’re worth looking at. Sort of a mashup, but to distill down: an ISIS workshop in Mosul was found with a number of DIY weaponized drones. This follows a February find of a workshop in Ramadi complete with vehicles constructed of plywood and styrofoam. The Mosul site included a peculiar model that looked to be a fixed-wing drone with attached quadrotor and PM speculated that it was either a mothership kind of design or for dropping boobytrapped quadrotors.
I’m left wondering if it was some sad attempt to create a fixed wing/VTOL hybrid, able to elevate vertically without runway or human launch but then take advantage of fixed-wing speed and stability like a Harrier.
Another part of the Popular Mechanics story was from Syria, where a refugee camp was hit by miniature guided bombs that appeared to be at least partially 3D-printed. They lacked engines but did apparently have working servos to operate fins and provide mid-course correction or at least stabilization, reportedly dropped from drones. I’ve been expecting sophisticated 3D-printed ordnance from insurgencies for a while but assumed they’d be in rocket form – perhaps it’s just easier to drop from above and guide in than launch and propel, plus the launch site has a better chance of staying undetected. The problem with assuming these latter are insurgent bombs though – aside from the fact that the Syrian regime is happy to kill refugees at their leisure – is that the height you’d need to drop them from to allow for any kind of vertical guidance is considerable, higher than the typical quadrotor. ISIS obviously has fixed wing dronecraft but the level of sophistication involved has me wondering.
Given the previous evolution I talked about involving ipad accelerometers to aim mortars in Syria and Raspberry Pi-powered missile launchers in Ukraine, when we were barely producing single-shot 3D printed firearms a decade ago, we’re likely to see more innovation in this area and to terrible effect.
Jon Jeckell tweeted a Popular Mechanics piece showing what appeared to be a Ukrainian prototype shoulder-fired missile with a guidance system powered by the Raspberry Pi microcomputer. The inclusion of the Pi makes it a seeming next-step from the much shared image of Syrian rebels in Jobar in 2013 using an iPad to angle mortar fire. We are using our new off-the-shelf street-level tools to build the complex weapons systems out of most people’s reach for the past half-century or more.
Just as notable as the idea that it uses the hobbyist computer is that it’s apparently guided by sound, making it the first sound-homing ground-based weapon. This dovetails neatly with another trend I’ve been tracking and laid out a bit in The Renewed Importance of Sound – an exploration and exploitation of a much different sensory domain than we’re used to engaging with.
Mortars have been around since the 14th century or so – unsurprisingly (due to the history of gunpowder), first appearing in east/southeast Asia. It took 500 years to go from massive, unwieldy field artillery pieces to the compact Stokes trench mortar in the first World War that could be carried and crewed by a single soldier. Less than fifty years later, engineers successfully managed to link hardware and firing control computers in such a way that they could achieve MRSI or Multiple Round Simultaneous Impact, a devastating deployment of ordnance in which multiple weapons in different places fire in such a way that their rounds reach the target at the same time. With minimal human input, which seems to be the way our weapons trend.
Shoulder-fired missiles have a similar line of development. Traced back to ancient Chinese arrows loaded with black powder and a fuse, they evolved then into multiply-crewed weapons systems that looked like a collection of tubes on a single wheel axle that could be fired in quick succession but not aimed particularly well. Fast forward roughly equivalent to the above and you get to the Panzerfaust of World War II and similar rocket-propelled weapons systems that were much more practical and stable, if not necessarily accurate. And again, in less than 10% of the time between the real inception of the weapon and its 20th century jump, the technology jumped again. As just one example, Britain developed the MBT-LAW shoulder-fired “fire and forget” system that tracks moving targets on its own, making autonomous corrections to its flight path and speed. Also consider MANPAD (man-portable air defense systems) like the Stinger missile.
At first glance the Jobar case and the Ukrainian prototype seem disconnected. After all, the former involves using the accelerometer of a separate, unlinked device whereas the missile integrates the technology. But consider the similar technological trajectories of the weapons systems and the fact that people without access to Pentagon engineers can now not only use computers to deliver ordnance accurately but can relatively easily link them similar to the MRSI concept explained above. Once an abstract concept, ballistic computers are now so natively and immediately understood that in the absence of them we appropriate our own, integrate them how we can, and deploy.