Robot parachutists hit the mark

Robot parachutists hit the mark
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Two US Marine Corps' skydivers made their first combat zone landing in earlier this year at a little-known and remote US army camp in Iraq's Al Anbar Province. The landings were significant enough to go down in history but there was little fanfare at the time as the aim of the exercise was to supply remote troops with the things they needed in a combat situation – the Sherpas each rode a pallet of rations to the drop zone, controlling their chute from two miles high to within 200 metres of their target.

The Sherpa is an intelligent robot that uses a Global Positioning System to steer the rectangular, 900-square-foot parachute by motor-tugged lines. The Sherpas belong to the 1st Air Delivery Platoon, part of Combat Service Support Battalion 7, 1st Force Service Support Group, which delivers supplies to Marine units throughout the vast western portion of Iraq's Al Anbar Province.

GPS-guided parachutes like the Sherpa eliminate numerous disadvantages of air dropping supplies to far-flung troops in that it can be steered, unlike a round parachute. It also incorporates a small drogue parachute to help stabilize the cargo pallet, keeping it facing upward so the main chute opens properly after freefalling.

While in flight, the Sherpa constantly checks its position using a GPS receiver, and makes flight adjustments as necessary, pulling on two steering lines to turn the parachute.

Before any mission, the aircraft's altitude and speed, the cargo's weight, the drop zone location and wind speeds for various heights must be programmed into the Sherpa's control unit so it can calculate a flight plan, said Gunnery Sgt. Lorrin K. Bush (no relation), 35, head of the air delivery platoon. It can even be programmed to maneuver around obstacles or locations where enemy forces are located.

In response, the Sherpa calculates the precise point in the sky where the cargo must be dropped. As a result, the riggers are taking on more responsibility since they can now plan part of the flight's path. Previously, this task fell upon the plane's navigator.

"We give them the mission and say "Fly this,'" Bush said. "They're not used to hearing that from us."

Currently, cargo is dropped via "dumb" parachutes, which have varying accuracy depending on the altitude of the aircraft and wind conditions during the drop, said Pack. Low-altitude drops, classified as anything under 2,000 feet, are fairly accurate, but put the plane and its crew in range of crippling enemy fire.

"The GPS-guided chute gives us more flexibility dropping the load," said Edmonds, Wash., native Capt. Robert D. Hornick, 28, a KC-130 cargo plane co-pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, the unit that flew the mission. "We just get close to the 'DZ' and drop it and it does the rest."

A week prior to the Sherpa's debut, a KC-130 dropped a load of rations for Marines at Camp Korean Village, the remote location chosen for the first drop. Even at 800 feet, the cargo landed 300 meters from its target, said Pack. In Afghanistan, where air delivery is used heavily to re-supply forces in remote locations, loads have landed more than a kilometer from troops on the ground, forcing them to hike and hunt for the goods.

Drop zones are sometimes marked with colored-smoke grenades or large canvas markers. That, followed by the low-flying planes, could give away the friendly unit's location.

With the Sherpa, however, pilots don't even need to see the ground, and can make accurate drops day or night from as high as 25,000 feet and as far as nine miles from the drop zone. In fact, numerous Sherpas can be dropped during one pass, saving time and fuel, and each could be accurately delivered to a different unit at a different location stretched over several miles.

While seemingly a godsend to Marines in Iraq, the Sherpa's capabilities are limited. One Sherpa canopy can support no more than 1,200 pounds of cargo. The Marine riggers typical pack bundles weighing 2,200 pounds.

The U.S. military is currently developing the Joint Precision Air Drop System, a family of computer-guided cargo parachutes expected to one day support 21-ton loads. However, smaller versions of the system that can support between 2,200 and 10,000 pounds aren't due to be fielded for at least another four years.

Tasked by commanders in Iraq to find an interim solution, the Army turned to Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology, Inc., a small civilian company based in Ottawa, Canada. More than three months ago, their Sherpa system was identified as an acceptable fix, said Army Reserve Capt. Barton T. Brundige, 41, a logistics operations officer with Multinational Corps - Iraq, who was in charge of fielding the system in Iraq.

"This is a 60-percent solution," said Pack. "It is a gap filler."

After talking with Bush, Brundige decided to outfit the platoon with the first Sherpas. Bush and three of his Marines, as well as four more air delivery Marines in California deploying to Iraq next month, then traveled to Yuma, Arizona, from July 6-17 to train to use the new gear. There they learned how to plan missions using the Sherpa's software, rig the system to a bundle of cargo and repair it if necessary.

After 10 drops using the Sherpa, Bush will provide the flight data to Brundige for further analysis. If everything checks out, 1st Air Delivery Platoon should receive 18 more Sherpas.

"It's like anything else. Until you actually give it to the guy on the ground and let them use it, you don't know everything. We don't anticipate the system being a failure," said Brundige, a Los Angeles native.

Each system, which includes a body, canopy, riggings, remote control, rechargeable batteries and software, costs US$68,000. A standard military cargo parachute runs approximately US$11,000.

Of the 5 million pounds of cargo moved by Combat Service Support Battalion 7 since March, approximately 100,000 pounds parachuted in, but that number is set to rise as there are plans to continue to air deliver supplies, both via precision and standard chutes, as one of the several methods to keep Marines equipped.

Since it is a specialized method of distribution, though, Burke doesn't expect air delivery to replace vehicle convoys in Iraq. While dangerous, they are currently the most effective way to move supplies around the battlefield since vehicles and drivers are numerous and cargo weight is seldom a concern.

While air delivery has seen limited use by the Marines thus far in Iraq, its helps reduce the number of Marines and vehicles taking to the dangerous Iraqi highways, veins of insurgent activity but lifelines to sustain troops.

To reduce vehicle convoys to remote bases like Korean Village, plans call for equipping the second rotation of air delivery Marines with larger parachutes, albeit standard ones, and pallets capable of delivering much larger loads of rations and water. Sherpas will be incorporated into standard drops as well as used to resupply units operating remotely.

In addition, the Army is attempting to modernize its supply distribution process throughout Iraq, and aerial delivery is certainly a part of that. Using aerial delivery to keep soldiers and Marines off the roads is a win-win for everybody.

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