On Solid Ground

Saving lives with a better measure of runway ground hardness.

21 Ratings

You are a mission planner tasked with organizing a humanitarian effort to rescue American citizens endangered by a natural disaster. You know where they are and how to fly there. What you don’t know is whether the open ground nearby can safely support planes laden with the fuel, supplies, and ground forces required for the rescue operation. With Mosquito, Combat Controllers can quickly and confidently assess whether the site is safe for landing.


A team of Air Force Combat Controllers must measure the hardness of below-ground soil, assessing whether a potential runway area would be able to handle the weight of landing C-130s or other heavy transport aircraft. The men trek across the desert with heavy packs. Two of them take defensive positions as the third prepares a primitive device called a Dynamic Cone Penetrometer or DCP. He lifts a heavy weight, drops it on a metal rod, and lifts it again, over and over. A yardstick is used to measure and record the depth after each impact as the steel rod penetrates up to three feet into the earth. This backbreaking procedure is repeated ...again and again ... and again, all the way down the length of the landing field. It is hard work for each spot and can take days to assess a full landing strip. No more. Today, such physically demanding work can be avoided with Mosquito, the first automated, backpack-friendly DCP. Mosquito is safer, faster, and more accurate than yesterday’s DCPs.


The Air Force needs a lightweight, rugged, automated way to measure the hardness of the ground at potential landing sites to ensure that it is safe for aircraft to land, taxi, and takeoff again. Even if the ground appears solid, softness below the surface can create dangerous conditions. As wheeled aircraft roll over soft ground, the surface can crack or slip causing the planes to get stuck, skid out of control, or collapse landing gear. Until now, the Air Force has used manual Dynamic Cone Penetrometers, primitive devices that are labor intensive, slow, and subject to human error. Our special forces have sought an improvement to this approach for decades but until now engineers could not come up with a better system that could be proven reliable, rugged, light-weight, and sure to provide the correct assessment of soil hardness.


Mosquito had to be small, light, and rugged enough to easily fit into a backpack and we had to prove that this automated system could be as trustworthy as manual devices that have been in use since the mid 20th century. Learning as we went, we built and tested a series of increasingly sophisticated prototypes in partnership with AFRL engineers and operators. Proving the accuracy of Mosquito required an extensive soil hardness validation program on many types of surfaces with many types of soil.

"I can confidently say that when I was a Combat Controller, Mosquito would have saved my men thousands of hours of time consuming, complicated, and arduous work assessing runway subsurface hardness. " — Mickey Wright


Like the manual penetrometer it replaces, Mosquito forces a metal rod into the ground using carefully calibrated hammer blows. By measuring how far the metal rod penetrates on each impact, Mosquito can determine soil hardness, not just at the surface, but down to depths of a few feet. Mosquito replaces the muscular labor required by manual DCPs with a linear motor that repeatedly lifts a weight and then slams it down onto the penetrating rod. Rechargeable lithium ion batteries power the motor and can be replaced in the field. An optical sensor called a linear encoder accurately measures how far the rod penetrates with each blow allowing an on-board processor to calculate soil hardness as a function of depth. Ratings are displayed on a small screen and data is tagged with date, time, and GPS coordinates. Mosquito users can upload all this information to a laptop using a USB interface for fast assessment and integration into Air Force mapping systems. Where once a detailed table of numbers had to be recorded in writing and read over the radio, today the data is automatically transmitted to soil experts over a network. For successful operation of an aircraft like the C-130 on unimproved ground, soil hardness at many points must be assessed. Mosquito makes this once laborious and problem-prone process fast and relatively error free.


Because the Mosquito is faster and easier to use, our forces are less exposed to enemy fire even as they more confidently determine the fitness of a landing site. Because data is taken and recorded automatically, there is less opportunity for human error.

This has been a tremendous opportunity for MDA and has allowed us to expand our product offerings into a new market while simultaneously supporting our service men and women.

Mosquito has increased the efficiency of our forces for and in the coming years is expected to save thousands of hours of expensive and potentially dangerous effort in the field. This allows our forces to more quickly and safely operate in a variety of areas. The DoD is considering putting Mosquito into production for assessing ground hardness for activities such as road building and is moving forward with programs to mount Mosquito derivatives on wheeled vehicles.

Space Expertise Comes to Ground

MDA US Systems Pasadena office had experience building lightweight, low-power coring machines for space exploration. They transferred this expertise into the terrestrial realm when designing the compact Mosquito.

MDA US Systems, LLC


Pasadena, CA

MDA US Systems is a premier manufacturer and designer of composite structures for spacecraft and other high tech applications where high strength to weight ratios, superior stiffness and dimensional stability are key requirements.

Jason Bardis Jason Bardis

Jason Bardis

Sr. Mechanical Engineer

Patrick Sears Patrick Sears

Patrick Sears

Mechatronics Engineer

Le Zhang Le Zhang

Le Zhang

Mechatronics Engineer


Lightweight Low Force Rotary Percussive Coring Tool For Planetary Applications


NASA 06-1-S1.01



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