Saturday, February 04, 2012

Special Forces seek help to halt deadly helicopter crashes. They want 3-D laser mapping capable of seeing through fog, dust to find safe landing zones

Deadly helicopter crashes have killed dozens of U.S. Special Forces operators who flew risky missions to hunt insurgents and terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Now the U.S. military is looking to equip its elite warriors' helicopters with airborne laser mapping capable of seeing through fog and dust to find safe landing zones.

The laser-mapping technology, called LIDAR, could create a 3-D map of the ground even in the weather conditions worst for visibility. That would allow fast-flying helicopters to swoop into rough terrain such as the mountains of Afghanistan with less fear of crashing as they deploy Special Forces to target enemies, rescue hostages or evacuate the wounded.

Airborne LIDAR has already helped map the aftereffects of natural disasters, ancient Mayan ruins and New York City after 9/11. The technology sends out millions of laser pulses to reflect from terrain and reveal even the most subtle differences in height.

Military operations may require LIDAR to work in even tougher conditions, according to a request for information issued Thursday by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The military wants to test LIDAR's ability to spot landing-zone obstacles in fog and dust, map terrain features bigger than two inches and even detect wires or cables just 3/8 inches wide.

The LIDAR device could even update pilots about vehicles or people moving around inside any possible landing zone, as well as ignore the dust particles it detects. It must also aim for low size, weight and power — presumably to work aboard U.S. Special Forces helicopters such as the Blackhawk or Chinook.

U.S. Special Forces suffered 19 deaths from aircraft crashes during the period between October 2001 and November 2004 alone, as detailed in a 2007 study in the journal Annals of Surgery. That rate has almost certainly increased as Special Forces have stepped up operations around the world in recent years.

Such aircraft crashes have also cost Special Forces about $211 million since 2001.

The Air Force has already deployed an unknown number of LIDAR aircraft to map all of Afghanistan, according to Defense Systems. But if the technology is similarly put to work aboard helicopters during Special Forces missions, it could give troops the sight they need to get in and out safely at all times. 

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