Arduino Hits The Battlefield — For Real

We’re not sure if this is the first time, but here’s some pretty solid proof that Arduino has found its way into the weapons of war. The creators, [Derek Wales], [John Eischer], and [George Hopkins] are all Electronics Engineering majors at West Point. They came up with this idea after seeing video footage of a firefight in Afghanistan where combat soldiers were calling in artillery strikes using a compasses and GPS devices. It’s an all-in-one unit that can provide the same information quickly and accurately. The prototype above, which they call the DemonEye, contains a laser range finder, digital compass, and a GPS module. The article also states that it contains a mini-computer but we recognize that as an Arduino Mega (thanks to Miguel over at Areopago 21 for noticing this first and sending in the tip about it).

The prototype apparently comes in at $1000. Okay, it seems a bit high but not out of the ballpark. What we can’t understand is how the second generation of devices was billed out at $100,000 for five more units. What’s the going rate for laying out military-grade PCBs?

68 thoughts on “Arduino Hits The Battlefield — For Real

  1. My guess is that the military version can be dropped from a helicopter, into freezing water, thawed, buried in sand, kicked around for good measure… and still work.

    Or, at least, break into a manageable number of pieces.

  2. Guys, just because an Arduino was used in a prototype doesn’t mean it “made it into a weapon of war”. An arduino is a convenient prototyping package for an AVR microcontroller. Rest assured that in the finished product you’re not seeing anything resembling an arduino, it will be replaced by a handful of MIL-SPEC components and connectors that are nice and ruggedized and rated for extreme temps and shocks. Arduinos are fine for what they are, I’m not a hater I use them myself, but they are best for little one-off projects or for prototypes where they’ll be replaced by a designed-in microcontroller once you’re out of the proof of concept phase.

  3. Basically they are replacing JTAC gear with a laser range finder slaved to a GPS. You can get similar gear OTS for about a $2000 now. Now if you could slave it to a sat phone with a good camera, that you could drop to Libyan rebels you’d really have something. Packaged with comic book instruction kit. Point, Click, Send, Wait, BANG!

  4. $100k for five professionally designed units may sound high to a group of low-budget hackers, but you’re talking about serious military hardware here.

    The article states that this job was done by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab. A typical university lab is going to have funding overhead of around 40% that goes to the university, ostensibly to pay for facilities, etc. So let’s say the researchers saw $60k of this funding.

    The prototype cobbled together from off the shelf parts cost $1k. Now you have to design custom boards and a custom enclosure, all of which has to meet mil-spec and be ruggedized. Integration with other military systems probably also had to be considered. For a small run of custom parts, I could easily see that driving up the BOM cost to upwards of $3-5k/unit.

    After $40k in overhead and $15-25k in parts, that leaves $35-45k to pay the staff working on the project (at this point, there are no hackers working pro bono). You bring on a couple of guys who are probably making $80-100k/yr. Actual cost might be $150-200k after benefits, etc. Say an engineer costs $150k/yr; that $35-45k buys you around 3 engineer-months. If you need a team of 3 guys (electronics/board layout; firmware and integration; mechanical design), that means they have a month to finish the design and build five units. Sounds like a tight schedule to me.

    1. Yep,

      If they had to make new tooling to cast a case for this that could cost upwards of $20k-$40k for the tool. I am not even sure the £100k would cover production tooling costs.

    2. Remember, if there is a bug in the software in which the range is calculated as zero that will lead the live fire back to the person using the range finder. You need to be VERY sure before you do things like this.

      Such code would need to be very, very, very, reliable and consistent. You might want three different uC’s doing the same calculations multiple times to try and get a consensus. Still, you need to test, test and test again; test it a hundred thousand times before letting someone attempt to use it in combat.

      In addition the domestic GPS and digital compass will probably not be reliable/accurate enough to deliver safe results. You don’t want to make mistakes.

  5. Hmmmm…
    Quality Laser Range Find: $230
    Arduino Mega: $60
    20 channel GPS unit: $36
    Digital compass unit: $30
    Power board and battery: $50
    LCD display: $10
    Extra PCB: $10
    Various components/wire for decoding/encoding: $5

    Estimated total: $431
    So this guys is claiming over $500 in intellectual property and development? WTF? Let’s steal his idea and manufacture it for half the cost. We can consolidate all of the circuitry to one board, buy the ATMega1280 instead of the Arduino, and probably rewire the lcd display in the laser range finder to save about $55.

  6. I hope they upload the firmware somewhere on the military network, then at least in a pinch you can macgyver one together with a quick order from sperkfun.

    Anyone know of a list of retail products that contain AVR chips?

  7. @Art, I was thinking it, you said it. :) One more thing to mention, to be used by combat troops it will all be Mil-spec with extended temperature range. It will be sealed, probably to IP 67. It will also undergo rigorous shock and vibration testing. Frankly, 100k for five prototypes is LOW. My last communications project had a budget of 175k for a rack mounted device without the testing.

  8. They are a bit late, our government lab worked on this idea back in 2005-06 and pitched it to the Army who wasn’t interested at the time. Our version would have connected to our unmanned ground robots or combat net radio to pass target information directly to a weapon or artillery. This would allow the front line troops to pass target info to a weapon on the UGV and the operator would be able to see the target and command fire on it. The concept was simple and we had plans for a prototype. Our guys could be using it now in the field if the Army had moved out on it then.

  9. @art Vandelay it has nothing to do with being broken down or overhead. the military simply pays more for anything.

    I work on the OH-58D(r)and there are parts for the MMS (the big ball on top) that cost millions, for no apparent reason. hell, I’ve seen a ten thousand dollar bolt… a bolt that I could buy at home depot for $1. It’s simply because the military pays more. it makes no sense, it just does.

  10. damn forgot to mention, there is no way this will hit the battlefield in any less than ten years at least, what’s designed today won’t see actual use for at least ten years. unless special forces or someone like them get there hands, but that’s just to prototype it… the military is a very slow monotonous machince.

  11. Good cost analysis. I always thought they’re ramping the costs up so they’ll have enough funding for “non-existent” military installations like Area-51 and Men-in-Black.

  12. Part of the cost may also be a secure data link. And so what if the Arduino made it into a weapon of war? It isn’t a church or holy book it is a small micro. If they get this integrated with a drone it gets down right scary for the people that don’t have them. Even the smallest of patrols could just point one of these and press a button and blame down comes a GPS guided weapon. It would also allow ground troops to calling exact air strikes as well. Not to mention GPS guided MLRS rounds.

  13. Software development is expensive, if you have to do it properly.

    This is life critical, if the coordinates sent from this thing are wrong – innocent people could be killed.

    It is not simply a case of taking some open source tools from the internet and then rolling them onto a battle field.

  14. @smoker_date
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with open source tools when it comes to life critical technology. Sure, things need to be tested over and over and over for reliability, and an idea of professionalism needs to be applied, but let us not imply that open source tools are any less effective and reliable than professionally developed ones.
    Coming from an electrical engineer, I’ve worked with and developed many open source tools both professionally and independently, and I can tell you the difference between the two is that only one of them puts a paycheck in my pocket at the end of the day. If one starts at the base level and climbs to the top, one gains understanding.

  15. Working for a defense contracting corporation gives me a lot of insight into the price that I can share. The overhead doesn’t necessarily come from the grade of equipment used, but from all the paperwork and certifications it must go through during testing to allow it to be used by the military. Getting licensing to operate and construct a milspec laser and GPS is expensive and time consuming. So while the parts and construction are probably not that much greater than the original cost, getting certified and licensed to use milspec parts is easily going to add a ridiculous amount of overhead.

    Once upon a time, my company designed a wire for an unnamed 3-letter agency that cost >$10,000/foot due to the cost of getting it certified by that specific agency for it’s intended purpose, even though it was just made of copper and rubber and cost pennies to make.

  16. Honestly I’m surprised as hell that the military did not already have such a device. It’s not rocket science what they did.

    GPS location + direction it is pointing + distance to target = gps coordinates of target. Not hard to do at all

    I honestly am incredibly surprised that this did not already exist for the past 10 years.

  17. @fartface Just a minor correction:
    GPS location + direction it is pointing + distance to target != gps coordinates of target.
    Getting the “GPS coordinates” seems like it would require a GPS device at the target. The method you describe does give the location.

    1. I’m guessing you have arange finder which tells how far the target is from you. The gps tells your current position and that is used as a bsais to calculate the distance the range finderdetects based on the cardinal direction it is pointing at.

  18. These exist already in the Army and they CAN be dropped from 15 feet onto pavement and still work.

    If anyone has google-fu let him find ardupilot in a current military platform… does exist.

  19. I can say from experiance that the military pays an outrageous amount for simple products. I would love to be a military contractor. We payed a thousand bucks for a pcb with a couple pots, resistors, and a diode or two! Ordering parts as an electronics tech was always painful.

  20. Huh. Add APRS and a FLIR camera, and you would have the *perfect* system for spotting and reporting forest fire hotspots in real time. (Anyone who is in a position to be able to build one should talk to the local gov’t agency in charge of fighting forest fires to find out what they currently do, and if they would be interested. I can guarantee that they do.)

  21. If this fell into enemy hands the results would be.. ughh… well they could reprogram the arduino into blinky lights. Or upgrade its features! Or even copy this highly complex “arduino” technology for themselves! THEN WHERE WOULD WE BE?!?? WHERE-WOULD-WE-BEEEEEE?????

  22. “What we can’t understand is how the second generation of devices was billed out at $100,000 for five more units. What’s the going rate for laying out military-grade PCBs?”

    Look at the requirements of MIL-STD-810F, which describes the test practices of military gear. Imagine how much time and effort it takes to set up each test. That helps explain the cost of the next prototypes.

  23. It is a good university project but it has been done before. The guys that had the original idea used it for CAS and for tasking UAVs to fly to a specific location (fly by laser). Check this link out and select the “Target’s coordinates acquisition” on the left menu to see a video of a UAV flying to where the laser points at.

  24. Try developing a product and you will see how much it costs. I am working on a project, and the cost is approaching $30,000 (my labor included), and this is for a prototype lab setup. R&D costs quite a bit. How much do you think the iphone took to develop? Just prototype PCB’s will run into the thousands for single quantities.

  25. @ Chris, no the target designator emits a certain wavelength laser that tracked by a missle, htis is being used to tell some guy where to aim an artilery shell.

    @fartface,the military might not have used something like this sooner because of the possibility of the the laser being detect and giving away the location of the troops.

  26. @agrajag9 is correct. Once you take a project to a defense contractor, the costs skyrockets. They have to do everything with some internal “process” so that every piece is up to some particular standard the military wants. I work in a university environment, and has had to work on proposals involving companies like BAE and Lockheed Martin (on non-military related projects). It’s pretty ridiculous how much they will charge, but I guess they are covering their butts that everything is working perfectly. They build their company reputation on how well their stuff works…you don’t want a malfunctioning range finder that drops shells on the wrong place.

  27. military grade parts are EXPENSIVE, a single opamp can cost several dollars. Hell if you want a radiation hardened FPGA get ready to shell out $2000.

    military parts have to withstand, heat, cold, mechanical shock, electrical shock, radiation, chemical weapons, etc, etc.

  28. Quit knocking something just because the price goes up with a second version.

    like others said, this has to be mil spec and ready for a combat situation. Understandably putting all this in a cheap rat-shak project box and giving it to soldiers to use is not really desirable.

    So R&D for every component, paying for items, programmers, engineers, testing, re testing, re re testing, re re re testing, and finally some kind of use in a semi related field to prove its battle worthiness

  29. What if a hacker type person on the battlefield made one for his own use? I’m guessing he’d get into a world of trouble, but I suppose it’s possible. I have heard people have hacked together all sorts of fun stuff on the software side in the military that’s used to solve little problems they have, but this is often to the great consternation of the people above them.

  30. @Scott
    If you live in or do business with the US you’ve paid for airport nudey scanners, illegal domestic spying, torture, assassination of US citizens, the War on Drugs, two actual wars and a number of other operations, an aircraft carrier named after the president responsible for most of the preceding, and that’s just the stuff reported on the news. These devices wouldn’t register on my Meter O’ Outrage even if they were useless, which they aren’t.

    More importantly, We have posts explaining why the cost is what it is. If you want to complain about these reasons (entirely understandable, they’re symptomatic of a diseased society) this isn’t the place to do it.

  31. @spence 15 feet drop? Hah that’s nothing compared to what the mailman does with packages, so that arduino you ordered or that chinese laser did a lot more than drop 15 feet, and still works, simply by being in some bubblewrap, which on the ‘army-street’ represents a value of $10000 easy :)

  32. haha @Whatnot.

    I often wonder how anything makes it through the post, especially hard disks.
    Having had an expensive LCR meter demolished by them (hint: package seriously dented!) it shows that you have to make the package totally overkill when it comes to padding.
    Best bet is crushable padding to absorb the impact, shocks for the PCBs (not forgetting the centre of the board where flexing is maxed out), conformal coating, etc.
    Even something as mundane as a laser diode can and will fail if dropped as I discovered.

  33. @Whatnot – You are totally forgetting about Eminent Domain. It applies to patents as well, so I wish you good luck trying to stop any government agancy from using your public domain/GPL project without worrying about the “no military/police use” clause in the licence.

  34. Waiting for auto-cannons, human-detectors and suicidal robots going mainstream with Arduino/iPhone on board. Do SKYNET already collecting battle info like in that robot-wiki project?!

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