Supply from the Sky
Sean McCann delivers his thoughts the same way his guided and powered parachutes deliver cargo – with great precision. As president of Kanata, Ontario’s MMIST Inc., he feels his responsibility to almost 40 employees, to US military customers in Iran and Afghanistan, and to his company’s decade-long vision of rapid, safe and inexpensive aerial resupply.
He faces many challenges. MMIST systems have been used in combat situations, but operational security means he cannot talk about them. Many frontline military commanders see the immediate value of his systems, but in today’s operational tempo, they go with what they have, not what they want. The officers who support them are working flat out as well, so the climate is not particularly receptive to innovation right now. McCann said military personnel are highly adaptable but there is also a limit to their time and energy. “We know we can help right now but there is only a certain rate at which they can absorb change.”
MMIST began life with a South African ‘intelligent’ parachute system called the Sherpa. Essentially a rectangular parachute with guidance system and steering mechanism, much-improved versions of the Sherpa are now serving with US and NATO allies and other operators around the world, and have undergone operational tests with Canadian forces.
A powered parachute, the CQ-10A SnowGoose, is also in service with US forces in Iran and Afghanistan. Capable of carrying a 600-pound mix of cargo and fuel, the SnowGoose can carry out many missions that are currently assigned to more complex and costly winged UAVs. Developed under a forward-looking US military RFP, the SnowGoose combines: the most advanced guidance systems, including GPS; autonomous or ground-controller operation; many hours of loiter time, depending on the cargo-fuel ratio; and, unlike other air-dropped delivery systems, immediate return of the asset to a specified location, if desired. The SnowGoose can be launched from the back of a Hummer on a few hundred metres of road, or from any airdrop capable cargo aircraft.
From 25,000 feet and 30 miles away, the Sherpa can glide to within a few dozen metres of its target. The SnowGoose can carry out a surveillance mission or drop cargo and then fly back to a designated point for recovery and redeployment. As a communications relay it can fly 1000 kilometres on a full load of fuel.
In May, McCann was demonstrating MMIST equipment at a Kansas National Guard test range when a tornado literally destroyed Greensburg, 75 kilometres to the south, killing ten people and flattening almost 95% of the town. Rescue workers faced excruciating choices. Go in at night without illumination? Mount rescue operations without cell signals, knowing trapped people were frantically calling for help? Operate without line-of-sight radio communications? When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, McCann said, “the National Guard did not move in because they could not maintain communication, they couldn’t get line-of-sight towers up fast enough and they held off deploying the soldiers. So, in this one instance, just 75 kilometres from where we were doing these tests and trying to promote this capability, the exact scenario that we were talking about unfolded and I don’t think that was missed on them.”
CHANGING CLIMATE FOR CARGO
There are opportunities for parachute delivery almost anywhere helicopters or aircraft are delivering cargo, especially cargo that needs to be transhipped, McCann said. Climate change in Canada’s north has already shortened or even closed the season for ice road deliveries, meaning essential supplies must be brought in by air. This fall, MMIST will be demonstrating a 10,000-pound Sherpa system. “In those remote communities, 10,000 pounds of supplies is a lot. A truck-load is a lot of supplies and we’re talking five in one drop,” he said. “It’s all about minimizing the cost per pound of cargo. That’s where our interest has always been, to look at a fundamental change in the way you haul cargo.”
The newer generations of turboprop aircraft in particular are making air delivery more economical, and parachute systems could make them even more cost-effective. “All of a sudden, you get a significant economic and environmental advantage where your greenhouse gas emission per ton-kilometre goes down, and that’s on top of all the added advantages, like quicker delivery, less environmental impact on the ground because it allows people to operate without infrastructure like roads and runways, and operate in times of the year when they would do less damage than they would otherwise have to, just to ensure they would get their cargo and equipment in,” he explained.
McCann wants to diversify his company to include civil as well as military operations, and he believes that relief operations could be the bridge between those two worlds. In a disaster situation, he says, the military typically goes in first because they own the appropriate assets. As soon as possible, they begin joint operations with non-governmental organizations. “Air drop has only been seen as a military capability and when there is a disaster, or a need for humanitarian relief, it’s been the military that has had the ability to provide air drop service. That is something we’re trying to change,” he said.
During Hurricane Katrina, only two UAVs were requested for relief operations, the Predator and MMIST’s SnowGoose, and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) turned them both down. The agency is wrestling with the challenges of operating UAVs and manned craft in the same airspace, and refused to be rushed into a precedent-making decision. “In a war zone, they’ve worked out how to integrate UAVs into airspace. Not perfectly, but the demand is there and they’re making it work. Outside of that, there is nowhere outside of a testing range of some sort,” McCann said.
If the administrative and regulatory barriers can be overcome, he believes guided and powered parachute delivery could become standard operating procedure for many commercial requirements and disaster relief, as well as frontline military support. As he says, “MMIST is ready to deliver.”