28 June 2010

Our Eyes in the Skies

Earlier this Annual Training, I was able to observe a couple of take-offs and landings of our Military Intelligence Company's ("MICO," pronounced "my-koh") Unmanned Arial Vehicle (U.A.V.) platoon. The MICO is part of the 2/34 Brigade Special Troops Battalion (B.S.T.B.), headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The platoon flies the RQ-7B "Shadow," a radio-controlled aircraft with a 14-foot wingspan, capable of flying for up to 6 hours. Not only can it provide observation and radio-relay coverage, but an upgrade will soon allow it to be used to laser-direct artillery.

Training with the Shadow requires a mix of luck and good weather. "If it's too windy, too cloudy, or too rainy, we don't fly," says one soldier. It also requires a little organizational flexibility. The aviation section in the brigade's headquarters, for example, has to coordinate with the local airport to de-conflict airspace. The FAA doesn't want "robot planes" flying near manned aircraft, so using the drones shuts down local air traffic for a couple of hours at a time.

A trailer-mounted pneumatic catapult launches the gray-colored bird, accelerating the 400-pound drone to approximately 66 mph in the space of about 15 feet. To land, a system of arresting cables laid across the runway catches the aircraft's tailhook. The gasoline engine sounds like a weed-whacker on steroids, but can barely be heard if operating at high enough altitudes.

(By the way, below this post are two videos, each approximately 36 seconds. One is a Shadow take-off, the other, a landing.)

On the Star-Trek-like system of video screens in the brigade Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"), we were able to display the live video feed from our Shadows. The TOC personnel learned to simultaneously track the Shadow using our 2- and 3-Dimensional map systems, and to better understand and guide our eyes in the sky. Saying "hey, what's that over there" just doesn't work when you're on the radio with a guy or gal who is piloting an aircraft remotely.

The Shadow is a brigade-level asset. At the lower "battalion" level, soldiers use the RQ-11 Raven, a 65-inch-wingspan UAV that is launched by hand. It reminds me of those Styrofoam gliders they used to sell at the beach when I was a kid--extremely lightweight and designed to fall apart when it lands on the roof of your house.

The story goes that one of our Infantry guys were training with their Ravens under supervision from some Minnesota trainers. It was kind of windy, and it had been a judgment call to even conduct the training. While trying to land the aircraft, a sudden gust forced the Raven hit a white government-owned van in the front passenger-side door, denting it.

Of course, when it was later reported to the brigade TOC, it had grown by word of mouth into a full-blown "aviation incident." There was a quick investigation, but nothing was broken. Because the training had been conducted under the supervision of a Minnesota trainer, and because it was a Minnesota van, the safety officer determined that the Viking-on-Viking violence (or, if you prefer, the "Airbender Fender-Bender") qualified as a ground accident.

And the note on the Battle Captain's board the next day in the TOC?

"Ravens 1, Vans 0."


Video of a Raven take-off:

Video of a Raven landing:

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