Army Pilots: Flying Drones Tougher Than It Looks

By Eric Beidel
Flying unmanned aircraft over war zones may seem to outsiders like playing a tricked-out video game.

But these operations can be, indeed, dangerous, aviators contend. Bad weather, makeshift runways and close calls with friendly aircraft are among the hazards that put missions at risk.

The Army over the past decade has deployed more than 1,000 unmanned surveillance aircraft, which have logged more than 1 million combat hours. Operators who flew unmanned air systems over war zones said the learning curve for mastering the use of drones was steep. It takes years of combat experience to achieve proficiency.

“One of the first brigades that we worked for didn’t really seem to know how to use it [the aircraft], so we were pretty much just burning holes in the sky,” said Sgt. 1st Class Kelly C. Boehning, who was named unmanned aerial systems (UAS) “soldier of the year” at the Army Aviation Association of America’s symposium in December.

Enemy fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan adapt to army tactics, and time their attacks based on U.S. flying schedules, said Staff Sgt. Frank C. Petersen, a UAS instructor at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “I can’t say that they figured out what our weather limitations were, but they definitely could tell when we were or weren’t flying,” he said.

Many weather events can keep drones on the ground — high winds, lightning, freezing temperatures. “When there was bad weather, it seemed like there was always an increase in rocket fire or mortar attacks,” Boehning said. “I think they knew when we weren’t flying. I think it’s pretty obvious.”

Boehning described a typical scenario. “Basically you look at a field for hours and hours and hours and hours, waiting for something to happen,” he explained. “It’s not very exciting, but when you finally see a flash off in the distance, you zoom in and see some guys shooting mortars. You immediately yell out the grid [location], send it to the fires people and then you wait. Then you see the artillery come down and destroy the mortar team. It’s like Monday Night Football. It’s the big-screen TV and everybody jumps up and kicks their chairs over. You know you probably saved somebody’s life.”

Unlike Air Force operators who fly drones in theater from locations in the United States, the Army deploys UAS pilots overseas with the ground troops they support. Whether keeping watch over a convoy or raid, there is an added incentive for operators to bring their comrades back “into the gate” safely, said Boehning. “We watched trucks roll out of the gate that morning and we were watching them on the video screen that afternoon,” he said. “We knew the people we were watching. We knew where they were going to go. We knew the neighborhoods. We knew some of the street names. We knew some of the people by name. I think that personal touch was very important. It made us feel like part of the fight as opposed to being remotely located, especially in Las Vegas or something, watching the fight.”

Another challenge for the crews was finding suitable locations to set up UAS bases of operation. Boehning said his unit was lucky enough to find an airfield that once was used by the Iraqi Air Force. It came with everything they needed and more, including a hard runway and a communication tower.

One unit was not so fortunate. After being kicked off one airfield, it found another with a nice runway and seemingly solid facilities. After about a month, though, the hangars collapsed on the U.S. aircraft that had been stored inside.

In the schoolhouse, Army UAS operators are taught that they need an area the size of a soccer field to launch and land their Shadow unmanned aircraft. Boehning never imagined stumbling onto readymade facilities. “If we had gone over to a country without any runways or airports or anything to use, we would have just done what the system was advertised to do.” That would require blocking off streets to create landing strips or hauling dirt from one area to another to build a runway, as some units have done.

“That’s what we expected in the beginning,” Boehning said. “Now I think we’re all used to having fixed facilities, so I think we’re all probably spoiled.”

Operator training also is being shaped by the increasingly sophisticated technology that is being installed on Army aircraft.

The most significant enhancements have been in sensors. While every UAS today is equipped with a camera, in the future all surveillance aircraft will have multiple sensors, said Terry L. Mitchell, intelligence futures director at Army headquarters.

He said the Army is also looking at other means to deploy sensors, such as aerostats. There is growing interest in hybrid airships such as the long endurance multi-intelligence vehicle, or LEMV, which has 18 different bays to host sensors. The Army will begin fielding the LEMV, which can carry four full-motion video sensors, in late 2011 or early 2012, Mitchell said. The airship, which is being developed by Northrop Grumman, will be as long as a football field and as high as a four-story building. It will be able to stay up in the air for 21 days at a time.

The Army will increase its use of aerostats, Mitchell said. “We’ll probably have a little over 100 in [theater] next year,” he said.

Making the most use out of current aircraft is another priority, Mitchell said. Engineers at the Army’s unmanned aerial systems project office have developed a “triclops” system for the extended-range multipurpose Gray Eagle drone. Triclops, which stands for Triple Common Sensor Payload Line-of-sight Operations, consists of three sensor balls. One can be controlled by a soldier on the ground, another by an airborne operator from an Apache helicopter and the other by the UAV operator. The sensors also could focus on different targets, which helps in the hunt for improvised explosive devices, officials said.

The UAS project office also is working on advanced programs to increase intelligence, surveillance and recognizance (ISR) capabilities. One is a collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and U.S. Special Operations Command to field three vertical take-off and landing unmanned helicopters.

After years of fast growth, however, Army UAS programs are due for some belt tightening, officials said.

Col. Randolph “Randy” R. Rotte, chief of the Army aviation division at the Pentagon, has to play the role of a kill-joy “wife” when it comes to UAS requests. “They want the 50-inch plasma. I tell them, ‘I’m sorry, honey, we can only afford the 32-inch. Or maybe we can get the 50-inch plasma if we don’t do Starbucks for a few months and we postpone buying a new car for a year,’” Rotte said.

There is a skyrocketing demand for un-manned air systems in theater, where the Army currently has more than 320 unpiloted aircraft. But keeping up with growing needs and supporting the current fleet of drones is becoming an increasingly delicate balancing act, Rotte said.

Officials must weigh requests for small UAS like the Raven against the demand for larger drones like Gray Eagle. The Army must also determine how to apportion funding for devices used to gather intelligence and systems used to disseminate it, Rotte said.

The highest priority are deployed units so that “they have more systems, more sensors, more air vehicles than those who are home stationed in training,” Rotte explained. Resources for U.S.-based training houses will remain limited, he added. The Army is still grappling with how to go about balancing these demands.

“I wish I could tell you with clarity and accuracy where we are going to go in the future, but I can’t,” said Ellis Golson, director of the capability, development and integration directorate at Fort Rucker, Ala. “I don’t know what the resourcing is going to be, I don’t know what the personnel allocations are going to be, all of which is in a state of flux.”

The Army is currently reviewing all of its UAS capabilities. “It’s no secret that resources are getting tight,” said Maj. Gen. James C. McConville, a legislative liaison for the Army. “We’re taking a hard look at every single system,” he said. The Army poured $1.2 billion into UAS programs in fiscal 2010. The service requested another $1.3 billion for 2011.

Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., a former Army aviator himself, told officials at the AAAA conference that they need to speak up if they want to avoid painful funding cuts. He urged service members to tell the human stories of war to overcome what he called a “breakdown” in the defense authorization process.

“There is a perception that has developed, partly courtesy of Desert Storm and partly because of [Defense Department] public relations .... that wars are being fought with computers and technology with little to no risk for the soldiers involved,” Davis said. “Most people have no clue what it is that you do. And it’s very important in this current Congress — with so many new members — to communicate.”

Army officials need to discuss with citizens and the media “the human factor” of their missions, Davis said. The congressman said that he has seen many programs saved and authorized thanks to officers explaining the nitty-gritty of the tools they have or need.                                              

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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