NATICK, Mass, Oct. 5, 2011 -- Solutions to problems don't usually fall from the sky.
Exceptions to this rule come in the form of good ideas generated by the airdrop professionals at Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts, whose best answers to tough questions normally float gently to earth. With Soldiers fighting in remote areas of Afghanistan where resupply often must come from the air, that won't change anytime soon.
"If you're going by helicopter to resupply, it's very easy for the enemy to try and shoot you down," said Andrew Meloni of Airdrop Technology Team. "So the only means of resupply for some of these bases is airdrop."
In 2010, the Air Force alone airdropped 60.4 million pounds of supplies in Afghanistan, up from 2 million pounds in 2005. "In theater right now, they've been doubling airdrops every year," said Rich Benney, division leader, Aerial Delivery Equipment and Systems Division.
Terrain and wind present further challenges, however. Supplies dropped by conventional means can drift off course or roll down mountainsides and out of safe reach. And when isolated Soldiers don't receive their supplies, lives can be at risk.
"For that kind of high-priority situation, we've developed what we'll call smart airdrop or precision airdrop, which is guided the entire way down," said Chris Ormonde of ATT.
The Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS, uses a GPS, avionics and motors to guide steerable parachutes to one or more landing zones simultaneously with the kind of precision made necessary by the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. Though it has accounted for less than 1 percent of all airdrops, JPADS has proved invaluable since its debut there in August 2006. The number of precision deliveries coming down will only increase.
"Right now, there are more than a hundred JPADS 2K systems in theater," Benney said. "It takes a while to get these back after a drop. You're clearly not using a lot of them. Most drop zones can utilize fielded one-time-use, unguided parachute systems. But the JPADS can get supplies into really tight and challenging terrain areas."
"We just basically program in the landing coordinate--latitude, longitude and elevation--throw it out, and the system will steer itself, completely autonomously, to the target," Meloni said.
That puts Soldiers at less risk when retrieving supplies. The airdrops, made from high altitudes, also keep aircrews safer than they would be on low-altitude passes.
"It gets the Air Force up high, out of the threat range," Benney said. "It allows them to be offset from the target. It allows the Air Force…to either pick from within a big area (launch-acceptability region) in the sky to drop to one point, or they can actually drop from one point and hit multiple targets, which is unique.
"The first time they employed the program of record (which is managed and executed by U.S. Army Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems, also at Natick) in theater they put out eight bundles and they programmed four to one (forward operating base) on one side of the valley and four to one FOB on the other side of the valley. That's unique."
Low-altitude airdrops in some areas are perilous.
"Around some regions of Afghanistan, if we come in low, they'll actually shoot from the top of the mountains down on the aircraft," Meloni said. "So getting up high -- and by high I mean 17,000 to 25,000 feet -- and dropping keeps them out of that threat range from small-arms fire and man-portable air defenses."
The JPADS family of systems allows for the delivery of different payload weights from 10 pounds to tens of thousands of pounds. In a single pass, one aircraft can deliver supplies to multiple FOBs. "We're getting within 100 meters in theater, and we've actually had efforts to push that in closer, within 50 meters," said Meloni of JPADS' accuracy. "It can be dropped day, night -- it doesn't matter."
"The accuracies are a function of JPADS weight class," Benney said. "So the smaller it is, the more accurate it is."
The decision of whether to use the accurate but more costly delivery systems depends on the situation.
"There is still a subset of drop zones in theater where we do need that really precise, guided system," Meloni said. "As you can see with the terrain there, it's not always easy to get some of this stuff back, so there's been a big push to reduce the cost."
One way to do that, said Meloni, is to use a modular version from which electronics can be removed after the supplies land.
"You actually reduce the cost of the system (significantly), and you're able to recover the most-expensive pieces," Meloni said.
Benney said that a normal airborne guidance unit weighs about 90 pounds. PM-FSS has developed a modular AGU that weighs 30 pounds less than that.
"The modular AGU repackages existing components and consolidates more than 50 percent of the AGU value in an easily removable module that can be recovered on a hot drop zone and is half the size of a shoebox," Benney said. "Throw it on your backpack (and) leave everything else, if required."
That's not the only opportunity for savings, Meloni said.
"In addition to the lower-cost guidance unit, (PM-FSS has) actually (developed and used a one-time-use, much) lower-cost parafoil," Meloni added.
Meloni called JPADS part of a "toolbox of systems that the Air Force and the Army can use to get supplies to the troops in Afghanistan or Iraq."
As Benney noted, the Army and Air Force have worked together to field the system.
"In general, the Air Force is responsible for getting you to the right point in the sky and knowing the weather," said Benney, "and the Army develops and pays for nearly everything that leaves the aircraft."
In the future, combat teams are likely to find themselves increasingly dispersed around the battlefield in the early days of a conflict. That dynamic environment would make JPADS even more vital to successful resupply and would push further refinements to the system.
On so-called "combo drops," different systems would communicate with one another during a drop.
"Right now, they do not know where each other is in the sky," Benney said. "We're looking in the future for secure (communications) so that each system can say, hey, this is where I am, and this is where I'm going, so that they don't hit each other and can pass each other information that will enhance situational awareness and accuracy.
"You could do -- and we're looking at -- follow the leader, have them fall into a pattern (stack up), which is what some of the (Special Forces) guys want to do."
The airdrop folks also have been dropping lighter-weight JPADS off of unmanned aircraft, which could be the future of aerial delivery.
"It could be an unmanned aircraft that comes by with all these different things," said Benney, "a loitering aircraft in a battle so you can get somebody anything they want right where and when they want it, very quickly."
Benney knows what airdrop customers are after in the long run.
"They want street corner and rooftop accuracy," Benney said. "Ultimately, we want to be able to go down Third Avenue, take a left on A Street and land right in front of the door."