Frankenphone 2.0: MQ-9 communication innovation

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

In 2015, a former member of the 42nd Attack Squadron saw a need to improve communications from MQ-9 Reaper aircrew to ground forces, thus, Frankenphone was created.  

He pieced-together the invention with scrap phone parts and headsets which aimed to improve communications clarity until a long term solution was procured. While the device underwent many iterations of upgrades, it still needed additional work.

Enter Capt. Gregory, 42nd ATKS training flight commander. He used his background as an electrical engineer major to construct a new and more reliable design.

“When I was in Initial Qualifications Training and anytime weapons had to be dropped, I had to step out of the seat while the instructors dropped the munitions,” he said. “During that time I got to observe the frustration we still had even with this fix. There was no way to control the volume and the two pieces really didn’t interface well, which meant sometimes, it was still hard to hear the joint terminal attack controllers.”

Once he completed the IQT, he focused on finding a way to improve Frankenphone and aimed to solve two key issues: durability and sound quality.

“Innovation by definition is not stagnant,” he said. “You have to continue to discover something that should be better, come up with a way to make it better and then not be satisfied until it’s as good as it can get.”

In November 2016 he disassembled the device to find a mechanical connection between two electrical pieces: a microphone and an ear piece. He then set out to characterize the electrical signals to get them to interface correctly.

“Due to the nature of working in a secured area, I worked on the Frankenphone at home every day after work for a few hours over the span of a few weeks,” he said. “The end product is a soldered and shrink-wrapped survivable piece of equipment. Because it’s a direct electrical connection, we were able to tune the audio and get rid of feedback and echoes.”

He didn’t consider time spent constructing the device as work. In fact, he referenced the late U.S. Army Gen. George Patton.

“Patton said ‘you’re always on parade,’ which means, in the military, you should always portray a professional image, but I think it also means, to some extent, that you’re always on duty,” he said. “The opportunity to make life better and execute the mission a little easier, that’s not work to me. It’s my hobby making the Air Force better and making the mission less complicated.”

After obtaining the proper clearances to install it, aircrews were using the Frankenphone, in conjunction with the Audio Multi Level System in the cockpit, the following month to execute overseas persistent attack and reconnaissance missions.

“Success in any military operation is being able to move, shoot and communicate,” Gregory said. “I believe this has proven to hit all three by ensuring quality communication with the ground forces in order to move and employ weapons.”

Once the cleared hot order from the JTAC is approved, the crew has a narrow window of time to employ the weapon under the right parameters, referred to as the weapons engagement zone.

“If we miss that, the bad guys get away or keep shooting at the good guys and we have to fly back around and try again which can take several minutes,” he said. “Even missing the cleared hot order can mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful engagement.”

Over the past eight months, 42nd ATKS crews have been able to employ weapons free of communication failures in support of counter-terror operations.

Not only does this little black box enable unimpeded coordination, but it’s also more cost effective than the previous edition. The old system cost about $700-$800, but this new one costs just $50 to manufacture. With a build time of under an hour, it’s a simple yet highly-functional innovation to the MQ-9 fleet across the Air Force.

Gregory was able to attend a conference discussing the ever evolving needs and changes to the MQ-9 community in 2017. With his work, Creech leadership was able to express communication deficiencies. The result will have future cockpit designs incorporating built-in features inspired from the Frankenphone.

He admitted he improved the original design out of pure frustration dealing with faulty communication. As a result he made a substantial impact to the entire MQ-9 community.

“Every person has something about their job that irritates them because it’s not efficient or they don’t understand it,” Gregory said. “I think it’s important for others to look for opportunities to innovate where they can. This is a mindset and mentality that is important to all Airmen.”

Gregory’s attitude to create positive change was actually developed as a child when his father would challenge his complaints.

“In grade school things around the house would irritate me and he would ask me ‘what do you plan to do?’” he said. “My dad wasn’t telling me to fix it, but I did.”

The Air Force prides itself on innovation through its Airmen especially during this time of regrowth where airpower is in even greater demand.

“As the commander, I’m proud of our Airmen and the ingenuity they use to solve complex problems,” Lt. Col. Ronnie, 42nd ATKS squadron commander. “The original Frankenphone was an invention that was born out of necessity and this redesigned version, complete with self-contained electronics and better sound quality, is simply the next evolutionary step.  I’m most proud that the designs are available across our community which enables other squadrons to make use of the system too.”