A parachute is a carefully engineered mess of cloth and string, gently lowering its occupant to the ground. A paratrooper is a person who takes that same trusted parachute, and then jumps out of a plane into a combat zone, and, in theory, is ready to fight as soon as he hits the ground.

Paratrooper jumps stick in the popular imagination as a fixture of past war, from a messy, if successful, use as part of D-Day to a messy and less successful attempt in Operation Market Garden, but we’ve seen airborne jumps in the 21st century, with jumps into both Afghanistan and Iraq taking place early in the respective wars, and continuing as a feature of some special operations forces missions.

With parachute jumps continuing right up to the present day, it should then be a little unsurprising that there’s now an app for paratroopers.

But is it an essential download?

Here’s how research firm Draper describes their app for parachutists:

The system operates as a plug-in to a smartphone — the first version is for the Android platform. Parachutists can use the app to see the terrain below them, the location of the jump team around them and the designated landing point. The app can also track the parachutists by sensing the moment they leave the plane. The app automatically switches navigation modes at that point, leaving the parachutist free to focus on maneuvering their parachute rather than adjusting the app.

It is, in a way, a Waze for paratroopers, tracking movement by GPS and noticing the changed states from “sitting in a plane” to “freefall” to “under a parachute.” As designed, it works with the gloves worn by the parachutist, and it can accept new data from the person in charge of the map. The research was funded by the U.S. Army, and will likely find a home there.

Will an app guarantee a future for parachute troops? Military observers and commentators periodically debate if paratroopers are a capability worth keeping, noting the rarity of large-scale jumps since World War II, highlighting the strategic rather than tactical utility of forces jumping from planes rather than carried by helicopter, and decrying the lack of a suitable air-dropped armored vehicle to really live up to airborne’s potential. While an app can’t solve the problem of a lack of armor, it can mitigate one of the greatest risks from air-dropping troops: landing zone dispersal, where a potent fighting force is instead scattered over a vast area, and able to be stopped piecemeal.

If there is a future for the airborne, it is likely a future with apps. The surprise gained is invaluable, provided, of course, that no jogging apps give the jumpers away.

Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.

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