Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS)

The Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) is a US Army program that bypasses the system that you might expect - GPS, the global positioning system that we all use. JPADS performs pinpoint deliveries from the air using images of the target area.

Recent tests of the U.S. Army’s Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) have been trying new navigational software—developed by the Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass., and other companies—to achieve GPS-style accuracy with images alone.

The software figures out its current location by comparing ground terrain features, such as trees or buildings seen by onboard cameras, with the latest satellite or drone images of the target area in its database. That allows the software to accurately guide the descent of the parafoil-equipped cargo as it glides toward the ground. It’s all part of a broader effort by the U.S. military to test computer-driven versions of old fashioned navigation by sight.

“It’s what we humans have been using since the beginning of time, vision-based navigation,” said Gary Thibault, supervisory mechanical engineer for the Airdrop/Aerial Delivery program in the office of the U.S. Army’s Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems.

Moving away from the modern U.S. military’s reliance on GPS has big advantages. Anyone who has tried using GPS directions on their smartphone while walking or driving in a city knows how GPS accuracy can suffer at times. The current reliance on GPS-guided airdrops could prove challenging for troops who will inevitably find themselves patrolling or fighting within huge cities in the future. Enemy jamming of GPS signals or possibly even direct attacks on the satellites forming the GPS constellation could also deny crucial positional information.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle described this idea perfectly in their 1985 blockbuster novel Footfall:

"You take a big iron bar. Give it a rudimentary sensor, and a steerable vane for guidance. Put bundles of them in orbit. To use it, call it down from orbit, aimed at the area you're working on. It has a simple brain, just smart enough to recognize what a tank looks like from overhead. When it sees a tank silhouette, it steers toward it."
(Read more about flying crowbars)

Via IEEE Spectrum.

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