Firefighters use GPS guided parachutes to land cargo in smoky conditions

FAIRBANKS, Alaska - One of the biggest challenges facing firefighters across Alaska in the 2019 fire season was smoke. The thick smoke that blanketed much of Alaska made firefighting efforts difficult. Much of firefighting is conducted from the air. Tankers and helicopters drop water and retardant on fires. Fire crews use aircraft to map the blazes, and supplies are dropped in from the air. New technology to the fire service has made delivering supplies in smoky conditions easier.

The paracargo team is in charge of delivering all supplies to remote fires with parachutes, they deliver everything from food, water and hoses to larger items such as boats and motors. During the off season and when the fire activity is low, they can deliver things for other agencies such as lumber and even project kits for the Iditarod Trail.

“We basically supply all the fire cache items and food and water to all the fires that are going on in the state of Alaska via parachute,” said Gabe Lydic, the Paracargo Coordinator for Alaska Smoke Jumpers. Adding, “It’s probably the most inexpensive and most reliable way to get cargo to remote locations.”

Until recently, paracargo was dropped from a relatively low altitude and parachutes deployed manually making it hard to deliver supplies in smoky conditions. A few years ago the Alaska Fire Service acquired military GPS guided systems. The Joint Precision Airdrop System known as JPAS can steer the cargo from a high altitude to where firefighters need the supplies. This is the first year they went operational with the system.

Operators enter drop location data into the autonomous guidance unit (AGU) and the system is able to calculate how to accurately land the cargo where it is needed. The computer produces a location to drop the cargo and then it takes over control, measuring wind and weather conditions to successfully deliver the goods.

If the drop is not flying the way they predicted, the crew is able to take over control of the system from an iPad and manually steer the chute toward the drop zone.

After the package lands, the firefighters on the ground send the parachute and AGU back to be used again. Lydic said many times it is ready to go again by the next day.

The Alaska Fire Service only has one JPAS currently but has been borrowing some from other states, however, Lydic said with the success they saw with it this year, they may be getting more.