By Pfc. Durwood Blackmon, 25th Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade
TIKRIT, Iraq – While on patrol, Soldiers are constantly tested by environmental dangers created by opposing forces. A menacing enemy threatens convoys, aircraft and troops with improvised tactics using a variety of lethal and destructive measures.
In the past few years however, the Army has added a new tool to their arsenal which aids in combating enemy strategy and saving Soldiers’ lives.
Combining aviation and technology Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are small lightweight aircraft, outfitted with equipment, capable of relaying information at lightning quick speeds.
“The aircraft’s primary function is to use its’ camera to provide real time, or near real time, intelligence to commanders so they can see what is happening on the ground,” said Spc. Raymond Poltera, Power Generator Mechanic, 1st Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Division.
Soldiers of 4th ID staged the maiden launch of a Shadow UAV at Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Sept. 19.
“I have been working on this system for about two years now.” Poltera continued, “As soon as we get everything up and going it will be our first launch at this site. The system we are setting up on the runway is like an aircraft carrier. Take off is done with a launcher and there are cables laid across the ground that the aircraft snags with a tail hook when it lands.”
Equipped with a camera, the vehicle is capable of scouting hazardous areas and giving Soldiers an extra pair of eyes from the skyline.
“We can do anything from route scans searching for Improvised Explosive Devices, to ride and support air assaults for infantry soldiers on the ground.” Said Spc. Christopher Stiles, Platoon Instructor Operator, Company B, 3rd Brigade, 3rd STB, 4ID.
“We can locate a mortar point of origin and search for the trigger men. After their position has been ascertained we can follow them and then communicate with our ground troops to intercept the enemy. We have also recognized targets of interest, took area photos and scouted the landscape to provide support for raids on the ground.”
The Shadow has a Global Positioning System that can gather exact coordinates of IED locations and relay those coordinates to commanders.
With an infrared camera, the aircraft is capable of conducting surveillance day or night.
Originally designed for launch during combat operations, takeoff from a stationary launcher is also successfully executed.
“This is a tactical unit with a tactical system. We are able to convoy somewhere, stop the convoy, post a couple of gun trucks and launch the system from the middle of a highway. It was not originally made for launching in this fashion but we have integrated the system and it works,” said Spc. Shane Cole, Engine Maintainer, Company A, 1st STB, 4th ID.
Technological advancements with the aircraft require less human influence, especially during landings, but operators are still required to direct the UAV.
“It’s like an auto-pilot system on a full scale airplane. You have control knobs for altitude, air-speed, direction and heading. But during a landing, sensors on the ground pick up a signal from the aircraft and then a computer lands it under the supervision of a UAV operator,” said Spc. Sein McEntee, UAV Operator, 1st STB, 4th ID.
Operators have a major responsibility in the mission flying the Shadow and using the cameras even though they are assisted by computers.
“There are Soldiers that operate and fly the aircraft as well as Soldiers who must work the controls for the camera,” said McEntee. “It’s an integrated system and takes a couple of Soldiers to fly the bird, but it’s very functional in this format.”
Aside from the technical intricacies of the Shadow, its primary function is to save lives.
What normally requires ground troops to risk personal danger investigating an area, can now be done visually with little risk.
“The best part about my job is that you get to work on a system that is fairly new to the Army and the Army is really starting to use these aircraft a lot,” said Cole. “When these birds go up, we do missions to find IEDs and insurgents that may be out there. Commanders like this aircraft too because they are unmanned so nobody’s life is at risk using them.”
Searching for insurgents and IEDs, Soldiers will continue to scour areas outside the confines of their operating bases. Using UAVs, like the Shadow, to visually identify dangers can and does preserve the lives of troops on the ground.
“We have found IEDs, possible Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices and anything else you can think of that can kill our guys. This equipment has and will continue to save countless lives,” said McEntee.