The US Army’s Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS), which uses GPS tracking to deploy unmanned supply airdrops to troops, is entering an experimental development stage wherein the system will use image recognition to identify the correct landing area.
The Charles Stark* Draper Laboratory, Inc, an independent not-for-profit laboratory in applied research since 1932, is working with the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) and other partners to develop the innovation, which is aimed at reducing the 3000 casualties which in 2007 resulted from inexact air-drops in militarily sensitive environments such as Afghanistan.
JPADS program manager Chris Bessette commented:
“The guided airdrop system is keeping U.S. forces from the danger that has killed thousands of their fellow troops. By enabling the system to operate using imagery alone when dropped as high as 25,000 feet above Mean Sea Level and upwards of 20 miles away from the target depending on winds, we can ensure that JPADS is even more versatile so troops receive supplies like fuel, ammunition, food, and water in the safest manner possible.”
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The current implementation of JPADS relies on GPS tracking to guide unmanned drops to the correct coordinates, but any deviation from the drop target, which can be caused by wind or other environment factors, can result in the necessity for troops to venture into frontline territory to retrieve the delivery.
Recent trials of the image-based JPADs drop system were carried out in Arizona, with the payloads determining their location by the comparison of terrain imagery to commercial satellite imagery of the target area. In varying topography even a slight miss can also cause the payload to tumble down mountains or otherwise become inaccessible to the troops it is intended for.
Further research is taking place between Draper and the U.S. Army with a view to addressing the problems caused when heavy cloud cover degrades the link between the automated payload and the satellite providing the reference imagery.
* Yes, Iron Man fans, it isn’t necessarily a coincidence.