Software keeps things dropped from the sky from landing on your head

When it comes to airdropping tons of water on a huge forest fire or loads of food to flood survivors, dropping things from an airplane to a precise spot on the ground in the face of wind and nasty weather can be a black art.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists have developed wind-forecast software that promise to improve aircraft airdrop target accuracy up to 70%.

The US Air Force is already using they system for dropping Army cargo and paratroopers into Iraq and Afghanistan, but the package can be used for releasing almost any cargo from an airplane into a target area: water over a blazing wildfire, food to a famine-stricken population, or supplies, tanks, and Humvees into a war zone, NOAA said.

The Local Analysis and Prediction System (LAPS) software runs on a laptop and pulls data from most meteorological observation systems into a very high-resolution gridded interface.

Data from local surface observing systems, Doppler radars, satellites, wind and temperature (RASS) profilers as well as aircraft are incorporated every hour into a three-dimensional grid covering an approximately 650 by 770 mile area.

LAPS also has atmospheric analysis and prediction components, NOAA stated. In the end, the improved wind forecasts in the final product reduce the average error distance between the center of the drop zone and the actual landing position from 5,000 to 1,300 feet, or 70%, NOAA said.

Inaccurate wind forecasts are the main culprit in missed targets for dropping supplies and other items from high altitudes, especially in mountainous terrain, NOAA stated.

NOAA said the software is being implemented at various government agencies including the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, Range Standardization and Automation at the US Space Centers, National Ocean Service, US Forest Service, and will make its way to international government weather bureaus in China, Italy, Taiwan, Thailand, and Korea.

LAPS is also part of Planning Systems, Inc., a military contractor based in Reston, Va., for use in its Precision AirDrop System. John McGinley, John Smart, Linda Wharton, and Daniel Birkenheuer won NOAA's Technology Transfer Award for successfully developing the software.

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