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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Faster, Smarter, Safer: Improving Aerial Resupply with Airdrops

Humanitarian and military airdrops in conflict and disaster zones come with a myriad of logistical challenges

CAMBRIDGE, MA – Airdrop has long proved a cornerstone of military and humanitarian missions as a way to deliver food and supplies to areas inaccessible to vehicle convoys. Precision, however, isn’t easy when delivering supplies from 25,000 feet above sea level and 10 or more miles away from the desired drop zone. A re-supply parachute that strays off course can result in lost supplies, property damage, human casualties and the real possibility of increased risk for those recovering the supplies.
 
Draper is working with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) to address these challenges—and improve airdrop precision—by focusing on the most challenging aspects of aerial resupply guidance, navigation and control. In a series of papers presented at a recent conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, researchers from Draper and NSRDEC tackled technical issues related to reducing mid-air collisions, developing new robust navigation methods and improving landing accuracy.

In one study, the team developed an algorithm to reduce mid-air collisions for guided aerial re-supply. They analyzed mid-air collisions and conducted simulations and tests under various wind conditions and other unexpected system shifts. They developed a new algorithm called Dispersed Energy Management Deconfliction, or DEMDec, which reduces mid-air collisions thus ensuring more supplies can be safely delivered. 

In a second study, researchers developed navigation software that integrates camera imagery with traditional inertial sensors—thus improving the robustness of the navigation solution. In a third paper, the team presented the Euler Elastica Terminal Guidance method, which uses newly developed computational methods to calculate efficient guidance flight trajectories based on minimal energy methods—allowing the parafoil controller to more effectively account for uncertain winds and performance to  achieve a desired impact point.

Advances in airdrop capabilities can work independently or together to enhance the reliability of aerial resupply across demanding conditions, according to Arch Owen, lead program manager for guided solutions within Draper’s Defense Systems program office. They also create greater advantage for our warfighters, he added. 

“Aerial resupply has been shown to be a key logistics enabler for the U.S. military and for humanitarian aid, providing vital supplies in hard to reach places and serving as a critical enabler to many missions,” Owen said. “Airdrop is a common resupply option for providing military and humanitarian aid; it has been used to deliver medical aid to war-torn regions of Syria, and sustenance to drought-stricken villages of South Sudan by a variety of groups including the World Food Program.”

A number of new circumstances on the ground and in the air are requiring increased flexibility in airdrop systems. Planes and helicopters equipped with airdrop supplies increasingly have to fly at higher altitudes and faster speeds in warzones because of the improved accuracy of adversaries’ weaponry. Humanitarian airdrops also are requiring greater precision, and frequency; when food, medicine and other supplies stray off target and into the wrong hands, the humanitarian crisis may only worsen. 

Draper has a long and significant history in airdrop. For the past 20 years, the company’s research has allowed airdrops to carry more weight, handle increased wind and deliver supplies with greater accuracy. Draper’s guidance, navigation and control software is the software used in the government’s Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS, to steer an aerial resupply parafoil in situations where normal parachute airdrops are not sufficiently accurate. Draper’s software has successfully flown different platforms with payload capacity ranging from five pounds, which could handle medical supplies, blood packets, or sensors, to 42,000 pounds, which could handle a truck or armored vehicle.

Humanitarian and military airdrops in conflict and disaster zones come with a myriad of logistical challenges. Photo credit: U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs. Airdrop has long proved a cornerstone of military and humanitarian missions as a way to deliver food and supplies to areas inaccessible to vehicle convoys. Photo credit: U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs. Draper is working with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) to improve airdrop precision. Photo credit: U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs.
Capabilities Used
Positioning, Navigation & Timing (PNT)

Draper develops novel PN&T solutions by combining precision instrumentation, advanced hardware technology, comprehensive algorithm and software development skills, and unique infrastructure and test resources to deploy system solutions. The scope of these efforts generally focuses on guidance, navigation, and control GN&C-related needs, ranging from highly accurate, inertial solutions for (ICBMs) and inertial/stellar solutions for SLBMs, to integrated Inertial Navigation System(INS)/GPS solutions for gun-fired munitions, to multisensor configurations for soldier navigation in GPS-challenged environments. Emerging technologies under development that leverage and advance commercial technology offerings include celestial navigation (compact star cameras), inertial navigation (MEMS, cold atom sensors), precision time transfer (precision optics, chip-scale atomic clocks) and vision-based navigation (cell phone cameras, combinatorial signal processing algorithms).

Autonomous Systems

Draper combines mission planning, PN&T, situational awareness, and novel GN&C designs to develop and deploy autonomous platforms for ground, air, sea and undersea needs. These systems range in complexity from human-in-the-loop to systems that operate without any human intervention. The design of these systems generally involves decomposing the mission needs into sets of scenarios that result in trade studies that lead to an optimized solution with key performance requirements.  Draper continues to advance the field of autonomy through research in the areas of mission planning, sensing and perception, mobility, learning, real-time performance evaluation and human trust in autonomous systems.

Image & Data Analytics

Draper combines specific domain expertise and knowledge of how to apply the latest analytics techniques to extract meaningful information from raw data to better understand complex, dynamic processes. Our system design approach encompasses effective organization and processing of large data sets, automated analysis using algorithms and exploitation of results. To facilitate user interaction with these processed data sets, Draper applies advanced techniques to automate understanding and correlation of patterns in the data. Draper’s expertise encompasses machine learning (including deep learning), information fusion from diverse and heterogeneous data sources, optimized coupling of data acquisition and analysis and novel methods for analysis of imagery and video data.

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