Lockheed Martin WindTracer system to improve airdrop accuracy


June 15, 2014

WindTracer will drop out of aircraft to evaluate atmospheric conditions for accurate air drops (Image: US Air Force)

WindTracer will drop out of aircraft to evaluate atmospheric conditions for accurate air drops (Image: US Air Force)

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For a besieged soldier or a disaster victim, a plane dropping supplies is the most welcome sight in the world – unless the drop ends up drifting off out of reach. To help make sure that airdrops end up where they belong, the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin to adapt its WindTracer wind measurement system for a Precision Air Drop (PAD) system to help aircrews land supplies faster and on target.

Since its development during World War II, the airdrop has become standard operating procedure for the world’s air forces when delivering supplies in times of war and natural disasters. In principle, it’s a fairly simple job. You take a pallet of cargo, strap a parachute on it, shove it out the back of a Hercules or a similar cargo plane, and the groceries float safely to Earth.

Unfortunately, where a parachute lands depends very much on how the wind blows, as French troops learned in 1954 as they watched in despair when supplies meant for them drifted into the hands of the enemy during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. For an accurate air drop, the crew needs a detailed profile of the winds, which can vary a great deal with altitude, from the plane down to the ground.

Lockheed’s WindTracer is a commercially available wind-profiling Lidar technology that’s been used at airports around the world for over a decade to give warnings of dangerous wind shears. It works by beaming pulses of infrared light that bounce off dust particles suspended in the atmosphere. As the light bounces back, the WindTracer can measure the speed and direction that the particles, and therefore the wind, is moving. That way, air traffic controllers get warnings about wind shears and other dangerous wind conditions and can warn pilots accordingly.

So it can be delivered to remote bases, PAD will be a ruggedized, miniaturized version of WindTracer set on a pallet for its own air drop. After it is deployed to the ground, troops will hook up to an equally small and rugged telemetry system. The idea is that instead of making several passes over a drop site to gauge the wind, PAD’s lidar measures the wind speeds and directions, and beams the results back to the aircrew, who can compensate when dropping the actual load.

“Currently airdrop missions require several flyovers to accurately determine wind readings, but our WindTracer technology would eliminate the need for so many passes,” says Dr. Kenneth Washington, vice president of STAR Labs, Lockheed Martin's space technology research and development group. “WindTracer is an adaptable commercial system. By developing this prototype, we’re putting this technology on a path for fielding.”

Source: Lockheed Martin

Update (Aug 7, 2014): The text relating to airdrops was edited to reflect the fact that the WindTracer doesn't operate while being dropped from the aircraft, but is ruggedized so it can be delivered to a base via aircraft, where it will then operate from the ground. We apologize for the error.

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

Sounds poorly though out... spend millions to create something expensive that gets dropped uselessly, in the vain effort that subsequent drops might fluke hitting their target (assuming the carrier isn't shot down - which, when they're doing multiple passes/drops, is going to be a serious problem)?

Put steerable chutes on the goods and $20 worth of arduino brain and it's going to land exactly where you want, first time, every time, no extra/dangerous passes needed.


@ Christopher

Special forces already use steerable chutes to land with pin-point accuracy, though I don't know any more than that. It may be that they are flown in (obviously remotely) by someone on the ground, not by a computer or the like. If that is the case, then perhaps this system might provide valuable information, though how they get the system back to base when they are in the middle of enemy territory and about to do something unpleasant to them is difficult to envisage. I don't think putting an "If found, please return to HM Government" would be met with a very positive response, somehow.

Mel Tisdale

Except for the LIDAR part, LM is a little late to the party. Several systems have been used operationally since 2008 to provide Precision Airdrop. The current program of record uses a relatively inexpensive disposable dropsonde to measure winds and relay the information back to the aircraft.

The U.S. Military also uses a family of guided airdrop systems when extreme accuracy or stand-off is needed. You're not far off from the $20 worth of Arduino brain Christopher, but remember, everything has to be ruggedized, so it ends up being a little more than $20.

Brad Johnson

Looks like a workable system, but why does it have to be throw-away? Permanent mount on the belly of cargo planes, or added as needed using a weapon/pod hard point could be reusable alternatives. What is the range limitation? Am I shooting down my own option by not being useful over 200mph?

Joe Carpenter

Must apply to skydiving.

Stephen Russell
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