by David Crane
defrev at gmail.com
This article may be modified/updated with new information in the coming days, so readers might want to check back in (to this article) over the next week.
August 15, 2007
In late February 2006, DefenseReview broke the story on a developmental (but functional) prototype remote-controlled armed/weaponized semi-autonomous/fully-autonomous unmanned mini-helicopter called the AutoCopter Gunship, which consisted of a gasoline-powered Neural Robotics, Inc. (NRI) AutoCopter weaponized with a single MPS Auto Assault-12 (AA-12) Machine Shotgun (full-auto shotgun). It was a neat little piece of prototypical lethal remote-controlled/unmanned miniature aircraft technology, and generated a lot of interest on the web.
Well, a lot’s happened at NRI in the year and a half since then, and it’s all good. The good folks at NRI have been hard at work to develop a larger, faster, more powerful, and more highly-developed AutoCopter Gunship miniature robotic attack helicopter that takes performance up a big notch. This new unmanned helicopter (or “unmanned helo”) is…
powered by a kerosene-fueled turbine engine and can carry two MPS AA-12 Machine Shotguns, and more electronics (avionics, cameras, sensors, etc.). Folks, meet the up-weaponized “first draft” prototype NRI Weaponized AutoCopter Explorer helicopter SUAS (Small Unmanned Aircraft System). The photos accompanying this article are exclusive to DefenseReview, so you’re seeing and reading about it here, first.
Developed to be utilized as a tactical hunter/killer unmanned helicopter (mini-helicopter) a.k.a. unmanned combat armed rotorcraft (UCAR) for search-and-destroy missions and convoy security/force protection missions, the weaponized NRI AutoCopter Explorer robotic helicopter is a high-tech, high-speed, hyper-maneuverable and highly-weaponized harbinger of death and destruction from above–for the enemy, that is. It will be able to fly in in on enemy targets–both ground and aerial targets–at over 100 mph and engage those targets with forty (40) 12-gauge shotgun rounds or various types of 3-inch (3”) fin-stabilized FRAG-12 HE (High Explosive) grenade rounds at 300 RPM (Rounds Per Minute) out of the twin-AA-12s. The operator/pilot will be able to fire each gun individually or both guns simultaneously, depending on the situation. Oh, and did we mention that it (AutoCopter Explorer) will also be easily transportable in the back of your van (or SUV)?
Note: The AA-12 Full-Auto Shotgun is currently the ultimate delivery vehicle/launching platform for the FRAG-12 grenade rounds, and would appear to be the ultimate combat shotgun for infantry warfare applications, period. This is due to several factors: 1) The AA-12 was recently modified to feed and cycle both 3-inch and 2.75″ shotgun rounds/shells reliably, specifically so it could reliably feed/cycle the FRAG-12 grenade round. 2) The AA12 tactical shotgun was designed and developed from the ground up for military applications, specifically infantry combat (close-combat). In other words, it was born as a military shotgun. All the other shotguns currently in U.S. military and law enforcement service are modified (basically “militarized” and/or “ruggedized”) versions of commercial shotguns. 3) The AA-12 is a full-auto shotgun with a 300 rpm cyclic rate/ROF (Rate of Fire). 4) According to the manufacturer (MPS), the AA-12 doesn’t have to be cleaned or lubricated, even in adverse conditions under high round count. The company claims that the AA12’s aerospace-grade stainless steel internal components are self-lubricating and won’t corrode/rust.
The weaponized tactical “hunter/killer” NRI AutoCopter Explorer helicopter/rotorcraft will be able to cruise at 60-80 mph and have a top (level) speed (i.e. dash speed) of approx. 90 mph. Again, in a dive, the aircraft will be able to achieve 100+ mph speeds. It will be able to carry a payload of 30-40 lbs (guns/weapons, cameras, sensors, etc.). The photos accompanying this article show the aircraft with two (2) main rotor blades and a four-bladed tail rotor. However, the actual technology demonstrator, coming within the next few months, will have three (3) main rotor blades for greater lift. The AutoCopter Explorer’s main rotor disc is 8 feet in diameter, which is larger than the previous, gasoline-engined Autocopter’s rotor disc.
The NRI Weaponized AutoCopter Explorer UCAR/UCAV’s airframe and kerosene-fueled turbine engine (8.5 horsepower) are both made in Germany. NRI is the technology integrator, and handles the flight control system, which gives the helicopter its semi-autonomous/fully-autonomous flight capability. The turbine engine “tops out” at 165,000 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute), although NRI has found that the turbine engine typically runs at approx. 125,000 rpm in fully-loaded hover. A “power climb” will run the engine up to approx. 155,000 rpm. The engine has remote-start capability.
A turbine engine eats more fuel (kerosene) than a gasoline engine. However, unlike a gas engine, it won’t lose power at high altitudes. This is gives the NRI AutoCopter Explorer a huge advantage over the previous AutoCopter system. The turbine engine is also more reliable/less temperamental than a gasoline engine. U.S. military end users greatly appreciate and prefer this “heavy fuel” aspect vs. a gasoline engine.
In its 3-bladed configuration, the NRI AutoCopter Explorer will have an expected operating ceiling of 12,000-13,000 feet. It will most likely carry two (2) gallons of kerosene fuel onboard, which will allow it to operate for approx. one (1) hour. The operator will be able to control the helicopter out to approx. 10 miles with the ground control station, which consists of a laptop computer, ground station software, and two radio modems.
The aircraft measures 86 inches, nose to tail. The aircraft’s weight without onboard weapons is approx. 31-32 lbs.
Apparently, the NRI AutoCopter Explorer is an impressive sight to behold when its flying. Michael Fouche, CEO of Neural Robotics, Inc. (NRI), had the following to say about it:
“It is an awesome sight to see this helicopter fly. We did a brief demo while we were doing some other work for some military people in West Virginia. Around 40 people were there working on their UAVs or UGVs when our pilot, Craig Burgess, fired up the helicopter. At that point the sound of the turbine engine winding up to full speed mesmerized the crowd and people stopped what they were doing – from take-off until landing the crowd (these are people used to seeing and working on UAVs) just watched in silence. This integrated system, the turbine-powered helicopter coupled with the NRI flight control system and the AA12 automatic weapon is “sexy”, very capable and has a bright future.”
As mentioned above, the helicopter is armed with twin-AA-12 Shotguns. The guns are individually equipped with boresighted cameras for aiming. The AA-12 is chambered for both 2.75-inch (2.75”) and 3-inch (3”) shotgun shells, and can carry 20 rounds in a proprietary 20-shot drum mag (magazine). So, twin AA12 shotguns gives you 40 rounds of full-auto 12-gauge firepower at your immediate disposal. Forty (40) standard 12-gauge (12ga.) shotgun rounds translates to 3,800 .18-Cal. BBs, 7,000 #4 shot pellets, and 10,000 #6 HEVI-Shot pellets, respectively, on enemy targets running for their lives at distances out to approx. 60-100 yards. That’s a lot of high-speed, lethal projectiles comin’ atcha’, folks, especially from just one itty, bitty little unmanned helicopter. And, since that little helicopter can fly after you at a top speed of approx. 90 mph, you can run, but you’re just gonna’ die tired.
HEVI-Shot 12-gauge shotgun shells are manufactured by ENVIRON-Metal, Inc., and were designed/developed to allow hunters to kill game at longer distances. The pellets are made from an ultra-dense metal allow that is very hard, yet more dense than lead (12 g/cc vs. 11 g/cc). So in military/tactical applications HEVI-Shot will allow U.S. military warfighters (including Spec-Operators) and the NRI AutoCopter Explorer Helicopter/UCAV (Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle) to neutralize human game at greater distances. In other words, same purpose, just different quarry.
If you decide to go with the FRAG-12 HE grenade rounds (12ga.), you have three (3) types to choose from: the FRAG-12 HE (High Explosive), FRAG-12 HE-FA (High Explosive Fragmenting Antipersonnel), and FRAG-12 HE-AP (High Explosive Armor-Piercing a.k.a. High Explosive Armor-Penetrating), depending on the mission profile and requirements. The FRAG-12 grenade rounds utilize a 19mm warhead with a MIL-SPEC 1316 compliant fuze assembly, and arm 3 meters from the muzzle for safety to the shooter. Regarding armor penetration capability, the original Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory (MCWL) literature on the FRAG-12 stated that the standard HE round will penetrate quarter-inch (1/4”) cold-rolled homogenous steel (CRHS) armor plate and make a one-inch (1-inch)-diameter hole. The same document states that the HE-AP utilizes a shaped-charge warhead to penetrate half-inch (1/2-inch) cold-rolled homogenous steel armor plate, making the same 1-inch diameter hole. However, Defense Review was recently told that the HE-AP will now penetrate ¾-inch CRHS armor plate (unconfirmed/unverified).
The FRAG-12 HE round contains 2.8 grams of pelletized A5 RDX high explosive powder. On impact, it detonates, and you get a big bang, and a lot of fragmentation from the metal casing of the round. The HE-FA anti-personnel round a.k.a. fragmentation round contains 90 stainless steel ball bearings, but it utilizes a smaller explosive charge (approx. 1.8-1.9 grams of high explosive) than the HE round.
125 FRAG-12 grenade rounds are currently being safety-tested at Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren a.k.a. NSWCDD. Testing is expected to continue for approx. one more month. They’ve already been testing them for the last two months.
Regarding handling safety, according to Randy Aukamp of Action Manufacturing Company (FRAG-12 subcontractor and manufacturer) the FRAG-12 grenades are “rock solid”. So, FRAG-12 grenades blow up on your enemy, not in your hands (sorry, couldn’t resist). Mr. Aukamp’s expecting to pass safety testing with “no problem at all.” “They’re good parts”, Aukamp said, referring to the FRAG-12 components Action makes.
Just FYI, there are two types of bench-testing that Action Manufacturing has conducted on the FRAG-12, static and dynamic (in flight) tests. In dynamic testing, the HE-AP round penetrates 1/2 inch. However, in static testing, it penetrates 1″ thick hot-rolled steel plate. Aukamp’s goal is to penetrate one (1) inch of steel armor at all combat ranges within the AA-12’s/FRAG-12’s operational range. “I know we can get it up to an inch [of steel armor penetration]. We need to be able to shoot this with a high-speed video camera [to see exactly what’s happening]. That’s the next step,” Aukamp said.
When I asked Mr. Aukamp what he thought of the FRAG-12’s best delivery/launching platform, the AA-12 Combat Shotgun, he replied “I love that gun. The gun is well made, and it fires great. Last week, we had a guy here from the Army, and he thought it looked like a great weapon.”
A Few Possible Tactical Scenarios
As described to DefenseReview, a strafing run scenario might start with the helicopter hovering out of sight and hearing range from enemy ground personnel at an altitude of approx. 500-700 feet when the operator “zeroes in” (acquires, identifies, and tracks) a target. The operator would then command the autopilot to command the helicopter to begin a fast 100+ mph dive towards the target. Once it reaches an altitude of 100 feet off the ground and is coming in at 100+ mph, the helicopter with its twin AA-12 full-auto shotguns would engage/strafe the target with whatever lethal ammo has been designated for this particular target (12-gauge shotgun rounds or FRAG-12 grenade rounds—or both).
To give the reader an idea of how just one FRAG-12 round can perform against a non-armored vehicle (standard car or truck/SUV), here’s what Randy Aukamp of Action Manufacturing (FRAG-12 subcontractor) told Defense Review about a test they conducted with a single HE-FA anti-personnel round:
“We fired the [FRAG-12 HE-FA] fragmentation round into a car filled with probably 60 balloons packed in there. The round penetrated the front windshield just below the rear-view mirror, went probably 2-3 inches past the windshield, detonated, and took out the driver and passenger side windows, and took out all the balloons at the same time. The back window was also blown out, and the rear side windows were pelletized up.”
Basically, the round saturated the interior of the car with its 90 ball bearings. “Nothing in that car would have survived”, Cates said. And that’s just one round. The AA-12 Full-Auto Combat/Tactical Shotgun can engage a moving car (occupants and engine block) with 20 FRAG-12s in four seconds at a distance of up to 200 yards out, a feat that might come in handy when facing a marauding vehicle packed with explosives and speeding toward a building, base, checkpoint or roadblock.
The NRI weaponized AutoCopter Explorer unmanned helicopter could approach (i.e. come in close) and hover around a target. If the enemy (insurgents, for example) is known to be inside a particular building, the helo can be commanded to circle the building while firing FRAG-12 grenades into it. The grenades would penetrate the walls of the structure and then spray/shred the occupants with lethal pellets. Once the helicopter has finished neutralizing the occupants inside, U.S. infantry warfighters would then enter the building with a “high confidence level”, or at least a higher confidence level, since most if not all the enemy combatants/insurgents would either be dead or severely injured.
3) Convoy Security/Force Protection Operations
When a convoy is moving, multiple helicopters could fly ahead, above and around the convoy, looking for potential threats. If a threat is detected, it could be investigated and engaged by one or more helos before the convoy reaches the threat, giving the convoy valuable time to escape (avoiding the threat altogether), prepare for battle, and/or call for air and ground support. Or, if helos fail to detect an oncoming threat, if the convoy is actually attacked via ambush, they can immediately swoop in and engage and saturate any/all enemy personnel, vehicles, etc. in the area with 12-gauge and FRAG-12 ammo and neutralize the threat. Any enemy personnel that aren’t immediately neutralized are going to have their hands full defending themselves from the helos and escaping with their lives. Multiple unmanned mini-helos shooting at you with thousands of shotgun pellets and/or grenade rounds is going to be extremely distracting, at the very least, one would think. Bottom line, it couldn’t hurt to have a bunch of these mini robotic attack helicopters flying overwatch.
4) Search-and-Destroy Missions (Daytime and Nighttime)
Sometimes, you just want to go out looking for the enemy. Theoretically you could send a swarm of armed/weaponized AutoCopter Explorers into a problem area (section of a city, for example) or throughout an entire city just “looking for trouble” (i.e. looking for targets). If you find ‘em, kill ‘em. It’s that simple. Assuming you can outfit the helicopter with a lightweight FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) system (as yet to be determined, but definitely something DefenseReview would like to see on the aircraft), you could really scare the hell out to the enemy by sending swarms of armed/weaponized AutoCopters out at night. By the time the bad guys hear the AutoCopter Explorer’s turbine engine and/or rotor blades whirring around, it’ll already be too late. Lights out. Nighttime “raids” of this type will give the helicopters an added level of stealth, and thus surprise. However, even in daytime, the aircraft is going to be relatively difficult to detect, track and target, due to its small size, speed and maneuverability, even if you can hear it coming.
Obviously, the aircraft should be camouflaged for tactical missions/operations. It will be particularly hard to detect and track the aircraft if you can camouflage the canopy/shell and onboard weapons effectively with an effective “sky camouflage” pattern like the Heater “sky camouflage” pattern or some other painted (sky camouflage) pattern. The rotor blades should also be darkened or camouflaged. You can also apply some aggressive Flying Tigers-style shark’s teeth and eyes nose art to the aircraft (like they sometimes do to the A-10 Thunderbolt II “Warthog” Ground Attack Aircraft), for added intimidation effect.
Since insurgents and terrorists now have night vision equipment (a.k.a. night observation devices, or “NODs”) and thermal/IR (infrared) imagers at their disposal, you might also want to apply thermal/infrared camouflage like that offered by Advanced American Enterprises (AAE) and Intermat Defense Coatings (IDC) to the aircraft. In addition to thermal signature management (infrared camouflage a.k.a. infrared stealth), both companies also offer radar signature management (radar stealth) products that could be applied. AAE even offers a daylight adaptive camouflage a.k.a. cloaking technology called “Visibility Stealth” for personnel and vehicles that might also be able to be applied to the AutoCopter Explorer (unconfirmed/unverified). This technology would give the helicopter Predator-like invisibility, if it could be applied to the aircraft, which we don’t know, at this point.
The weaponized NRI AutoCopter Explorer UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System), with its turbine engine (kerosene fuel), enhanced firepower, and larger size and payload capacity (vs. the original AutoCopter Gunship) is an exciting product, and has the capability to change how infantry warfare operations are conducted in urban environments, provided that it performs as advertised and is utilized intelligently. If it’s intelligently applied, this little robotic attack helicopter (a.k.a. robotic combat helicopter) can greatly assist our infantry warfighters in controlling the low airspace during particularly risky Urban Warfare/MOUT Operations, giving U.S. infantry forces not only valuable eyes in the sky, but also a highly-lethal (and mobile/maneuverable) punch. It’s an important technology, and Defense Review would recommend that both the U.S. Army and Marine Corps (USMC) take a very close and serious look at it.
As it happens, they should have the opportunity to do just that at Force Protection Equipment Demonstration VI (FPED VI), which is currently under way at Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA. Jerry Baber, President/CEO of Military Police Systems, Inc. (MPS, Inc.) and John Roos, a defense consultant working with Mr. Baber, are there right now showing the system at their booth. Mr. Baber developed the AA-12 Shotgun, and Mr. Roos is in charge of marketing the weaponized AutoCopter Explorer unmanned rotorcraft.
Projected per-unit cost on the NRI Weaponized AutoCopter Explorer is $200,000-$350,000, depending on how the aircraft is configured regarding avionics, sensors, electronics, weapons, etc. As military-application robocopters go, that’s not too bad.
Defense Review would be curious to see how twin-mounted Ultimax 100 MK3 or Ultimax 100 MK4 LMG/SAWs (Light Machine Guns/Squad Automatic Weapons) would perform on the aircraft. We’re guessing pretty well, since the Ultimax is so lightweight and controllable on full-auto. Perhaps they can mount an Ultimax under the nose, while keeping the AA-12s on either side, so you’d have three guns total on the aircraft, giving you 100-rounds of 5.56x45mm NATO (5.56mm NATO)/.223 Rem. ammunition onboard, in addition to the aforementioned 40 rounds of 12-gauge ammo of FRAG-12 fin-stabilized grenades. If that’s too much weight, and you want both 5.56mm and 12-gauge/FRAG-12 firepower onboard, you could go with the two-gun combo of an AA12 Shotgun on one side and an Ultimax on the other. The Ultimax 100 MK3/4 LMG/SAW will allow you to engage enemy targets accurately at longer ranges than with just the AA-12 onboard, although the 5.56mm ammo isn’t nearly as destructive/lethal as 12-gauge and FRAG-12 ammo at closer ranges.
Fortunately, NRI isn’t done, yet, and plans to develop and even larger and more powerful and capable AutoCopter with a twin-turbine engine (also kerosene fueled) that will be able to cruise at 80-100 mph (with a dash speed of 110-120 mph), carry 50-80 lbs of payload, and fly for approx. 3 hours (with a 1-hour dwell time). Each kerosene turbine engine will provide approx. 20-25 horsepower, so total horsepower will be an estimated 40-50 horsepower. Remote-control range should be approx. 100 miles with the datalink that NRI wants to use. This version of the AutoCopter might be able to mount Defense Review’s preferred weapons/sensor suite, consisting of two Auto Assault-12 Combat Shotguns loaded with FRAG-12 grenades, one Ultimax 100 MK3 or MK4 5.56 SAW/LMG, two Spike guided missiles, and a FLIR system (for night operations). The Spike guided missile is currently under development by the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD) / NAVAIR Weapons Division.
Author’s Note: In the above-right photo, you can see the scale of the new NRI robocopter (size relative to a man). The man in the photo is Jerry Baber, President/CEO of Military Police Systems, Inc. (MPS, Inc.) and developer of the AA-12 Shotgun.
John Roos, President
Jerry Baber, President
Military Police Systems, Inc. (MPS, Inc.)
Dr. R.A. Zeineh, President
Advanced American Enterprises (AAE)