When the Air Force conducts an airdrop mission today, pilots must fly planes over a drop zone multiple times in order to calculate wind conditions. A new system under development by Lockheed Martin could increase the precision of airdrops and cut down the time required to perform resupply missions.
Under an Air Force Research Laboratory contract, Lockheed Martin will adapt its commercial WindTracer technology to military use, enabling it to measure wind velocity and yield real-time data that can speed up airdrop missions, company officials said. Under the contract, the company will design a prototype airdrop unit for deployment at a test site.
The military version will be ruggedized so it can be airdropped at a forward operating base, for example. Once there, it will be stationed on the ground, sending data on wind speed and direction to planes dropping supplies, said Mark Lewis, a spokesman for Lockheed.
To conduct these missions today, the Air Force drops sensors that transmit GPS coordinates as they fall to the ground. This data is entered into a weather model to help troops predict the optimal location for dropping cargo loads, said Edward Ewald, program manager of WindTracer for precision air drop at Lockheed Martin. Information cannot be gathered until a sensor has landed, and many passes are needed to get a complete picture of wind conditions.
“It could be 20 to 30 minutes before they actually go back around and do the real airdrop of the cargo after they’ve dropped the sensors,” he said.
Tim Carrig, director of coherent technologies at Lockheed, said wind-profiling light detection and ranging technology is the backbone of WindTracer.
The system works by transmitting pulses of infrared laser light that reflect off dust particles in the atmosphere, Carrig said. When winds move these particles, the light frequency is altered and scattered back to the system. “We’re able to predict wind direction and wind speed by making these minute measurements,” he explained.
WindTracer is currently being used at airports. “What we’re trying to do is leverage the same technology at these airports . . . and apply it to a military application,” Carrig added.
WindTracer will be ruggedized to better withstand the shock and vibration of being dropped from an aircraft. In addition, the system will be miniaturized so it can sit comfortably in an A-22 aerial delivery container — the standard for military airdrops, company officials said.
The company is also improving the range of the system so that it can provide data from the aircraft all the way to the ground, Ewald said.
Lockheed in 2015 will perform test airdrops. The company intends to market a military version for around $1 million — about as much as the company’s commercial product.
Photo Credit: Navy