Airman's 'Frankenphone' connects ground forces, drone pilots

An Air Force sensor operator uses scrap parts to develop a low-budget solution to streamline communication between drone pilots and forward operators calling in air strikes.

One Air Force base’s trash has turned out to be a treasure for streamlining communications between ground forces and drone operators, thanks to a young sensor operator’s innovation.

Air Force RPA Frankenphone

Staff Sgt. Marion shows off the latest iteration of Frankenphone.


 The device—called “Frankenphone” as it is made up of various materials slated for scrap—increases communications quality while reducing piloting complications during flights of remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA, the preferred vernacular the Air Force uses for drones. Now in its third iteration, Frankenphone was developed by Staff Sgt. Marion at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., the Air Force reported as part of its “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series.

The problem Marion (the Air Force identified him by only one name) sought to fix was integrating communications systems with phone lines used by joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs—individuals on the ground that call in targeted air strikes or close air support—that contact RPA sensor operators and pilots. JTACs call into phone lines, which previously forced pilots to pin phones between their ear and shoulder while continuing to fly aircraft and monitor computer readouts—like a really egregious distracted driver. Because of budget restraints, the phone lines were not integrated to the intercom system headsets worn by pilots.

To make matters worse, in a rather redundant process, pilots had to relay and repeat information from JTAC personnel to the rest of the aircrew through a radio device.      

What the Frankenphone does is tie the phone line directly into the pilot’s headset intercom to keep the entire aircrew in the loop. 

“While the design is simple, what the Frankenphone does for the Air Force is nothing short of incredible,” said Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command. “Frankenphone is the kind of innovation [the Air Force] needs.”   

Additionally, Frankenphone allows for greater quality control during the approval process because the entire aircrew are on the party line. 

The Frankenphone is a rather elementary and inexpensive solution.  "It's made of a phone receiver that has been retired, and an old headset which either had microphones or speakers quit working," Marion said.

"The Frankenphone is allowing us to seamlessly execute the mission, while it saves the Air Force money," Lt. Col. Gregory, the 432nd Operations Group deputy commander stated. "A less than $250 modification has helped ensure ground forces in combat zones return safely to their families. There's no doubt in my mind that we have saved coalition lives with this device."

Marion has created continuity for the Frankenphone—currently in version 3.5 Ultra High Definition—to ensure that when he changes duty stations the solution will still be available for future sensor operators. 

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