Army Helos Had a Claw for Dropping Sensors
Unit created prototype in the field
You’re probably familiar with the claw machine, an arcade and carnival game in which the player tries to grab prizes with a flimsy pincer. But you probably didn’t know that some U.S. Army aviators played the game in reverse in Afghanistan.
In 2013, soldiers from the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division were having trouble setting up remote sensors—likely used to track enemy movements—in Afghanistan. The troops wanted to drop the beacons quickly from helicopters, but were running up against the country’s terrain.
“The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan was proving problematic,” the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force told War Is Boring in an email. “The payload would roll down the hills and mountainsides, rendering the device inoperable.”
REF’s job is to solve soldiers’ problems as quickly as possible. The unique unit developed a fix for 3rd Brigade’s problem in less than two weeks.
The troops were thrilled with the rapid response. “[It was] much faster and more convenient because I could actually interface with a person instead of a piece of paper,” Warrant Officer Fletcher West, one of the brigade’s electronic warfare personnel, told a military reporter.
An REF expeditionary laboratory—a kind of field workshop—built a four-pronged claw that lowered from a hovering UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.
The tines held the sensor with the help of a strap. An operator in the helicopter used a remote control to unbuckle the strap once the device was in position on the ground.
The claw lowered and raised back up by way of a rudimentary hoist. A standard power drill—like you can buy at Lowe’s or Home Depot—powered the mechanism.
Subsequent tests—one of which is depicted in the video below—showed that the initial product needed some improvements. Most importantly, the claw wasn’t heavy enough to keep still under a Blackhawk’s powerful rotors.
The final design was “fabricated with heavier-gauge metal,” REF’s public affairs office explained. Engineers improved other components, but left unchanged the device’s basic arrangement.
The brigade “successfully deployed [the claw] on several follow-on operational missions,” according to REF. We don’t know if soldiers are still using the system in Afghanistan or anywhere else.
However, the wider Army should probably take note of this tool. The ground combat branch has been deploying air-dropped sensors for some time now.
American troops first used these devices to try to pin down insurgents sneaking into South Vietnam from neighboring Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s. Army helicopters dropped the unmanned lookouts, according to an official report on the program.
Chopper crews in Southeast Asia ran into problems just like their contemporaries in Afghanistan did. At that time, Army aviators were also having a hard time putting the sensors in the right places.
But in Vietnam, the problem was more about aiming the Helicopter Emplaced Seismic Intrusion Detectors. These HELOSIDs and their cousins could spot passing enemy troops or vehicles or listen for radio messages and then send an alert signal to their operators.
“An ‘eyeballing’ technique” was the preferred method of lobbing the devices from the aircraft, according to a 1974 report from the ground combat branch’s Land Warfare Laboratory. At the time, LWL was working on an actual sight to help an “Unattended Ground Sensor Specialist” drop the package on target.
Despite the apparent success of these simple crosshairs 40 years ago, 3rd Brigade may well have been applying an unassisted method before the claws became available. “The unit was building on a previous technique developed in Iraq,” REF said.
Now that America is drawing down in Afghanistan, we can only hope that REF’s helo claw doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.