Scientists recognized for work on precision airdrops

Software helps military and civilian aircraft drop supplies on-target

Four National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists who developed a program to improve wind forecasting have won the NOAA's Technology Transfer Award for their help in improving the accuracy of military supply airdrops.

The National Weather Service uses the Local Analysis and Prediction System (LAPS) as part of its Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System. LAPS also is used in many other weather forecasting programs here and abroad. Planning Systems Inc., a defense contractor based in Reston, Va., has incorporated it into its Precision Airdrop System, which is being used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan to improve the accuracy of supply drops by as much as 70 percent.

A team from NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., headed by John McGinley developed LAPS. The team, which also includes John Smart, Linda Wharton and Daniel Birkenheuer, will receive the tech transfer award Oct. 22 in a ceremony at NOAA's campus in Silver Spring, Md.

The U.S. Air Force uses PADS for dropping U.S. Army cargo and an occasional paratrooper into combat theaters. Improved wind forecasting enabled by LAPS has helped PADS to reduce the average landing error from the center of a drop target from 5,000 feet to 1,300 feet.

'Reducing the landing zone size makes recovery less dangerous for ground-based military units, who often cross hazardous areas to reach supply drops,' McGinley said. 'More accurate targeting also allows the aircraft to fly at higher, safer altitudes.'

The Defense Department has established the Joint Precision Airdrop System program in 1998 to improve the accuracy of supply drops, and PSI, now a part of QinetiQ North America, developed PADS as the mission planning component of the system. The goal was enable parachute deliveries from altitudes of up to 25,000 into a 400-meter target area.

PSI came to NOAA for help with the wind forecasting component of the system.

LAPS integrates data from multiple meteorological observations into a high-resolution grid, allowing creation of a 3-D model of weather conditions. It can combine observational data from Doppler radar, satellites, wind and temperature profilers and from aircraft. LAPS can be used for short-term winds forecasts using a number of forecast models. It is used by agencies as diverse as the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, NASA space centers, the National Ocean Service and the Forest Service.

PSI designed a dropsonde for the system, which is dropped from the aircraft to collect and process data for PADS. It delivers the observations, together with Global Positioning System data and time, to the airborne system via a UHF or VHF telemetry link. It also can incorporate data from ground-based sensors in the drop area.

In 2007, the Army expanded use of the system with a $10 million award to PSI for PADS equipment. The system is used in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Air Mobility Command, the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Forces on C-130, C-17 and SOF aircraft.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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