Unmanned Aircraft Take Surveillance Efforts to New Heights
May 1, 2007
JALALABAD AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Army News Service, April 30, 2007) - In the ongoing war on terror, intelligence on enemy movements saves lives on the battlefield. A small group of vanguard Soldiers from the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, took that crucial mission to new heights during their extended rotation in eastern Afghanistan. These Soldiers control the Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle designed exclusively for enemy surveillance.
The RQ7B, or Shadow UAV, began its stint as an intelligence-gathering mechanism in the late 1990s, when it received initial funding and began to operate in combat zones.
The vanguard platoon assembled to operate the Shadow on behalf of Task Force Spartan, and its expansive battle space is the first group to work with the device in Afghanistan.
"The use of the Shadow has kicked into high gear since transformation," said U.S. Army 1st Lt. Robert Morris, officer in charge of the UAV platoon. "The aircraft is meant to be a brigade-level asset. It is a low-cost but effective craft."
"Low-cost" is a relative term; the Shadow costs about $10 million. Its capabilities are basic but make an enormous contribution to battlefield effectiveness at the brigade level.
"In the future, the Shadow will become an integral part of all maneuver units as well as a capable asset to air power," said 1st Lt. Morris.
This UAV has a camera with infrared and optical lens power for both day and night surveillance. It also has a night-observation device similar to the night-vision goggles used by Soldiers.
Essentially, the Shadow is mainly used for observing enemy movement on the battlefield.
"We have had tremendous success in Afghanistan," said 1st Lt. Morris. "We have spotted platoon-size elements up to company-size elements of enemy moving in our AO (area of operation). We have played a huge role in enemy elimination without ever leaving our forward operating base."
Aside from the Shadow's function in kinetic operations, it also lends a great deal of support to mobility reconnaissance. Launching the Shadow, as opposed to mounted patrols, saves time and eliminates risk to Soldiers. The UAV can also be sent ahead of mounted patrols to give troops insight into the terrain their mission will cover.
"We can decipher if there is snow or water blocking a pass or traffic situations such as traffic jams," said 1st Lt. Morris. "We are able to work closely and cater to the intelligence elements of the brigade. The battalions steer us via their intelligence teams or we operate on basic observation from routine movements."
The Shadow is a complex electronic device, which requires its team to spend large amounts of time keeping it in tip-top shape.
"We spend a lot of time on routine maintenance," said 1st Lt. Morris. "We have pushed the Shadow pretty hard this last year. We make sure we spend the proper amount of time needed to ensure each mission is a success."
Prior to each mission, the team takes an hour or more of prep time to make sure the Shadow is primed to perform to its full potential. Each flight is pushed on the ground by two people who relay commands. One individual is responsible for the aircraft's movement, another operates the surveillance camera.
"All commands given the aircraft are done via computer," said Spc. Glenn Gottchalk, airfield coordinator and main mission commander. "We usually enter the grid where it (Shadow) will go, air speed and height for whatever terrain it needs to clear. Most commands are as easy as point and click." An internal tracking system is built into the aircraft, making it "aware" of its location, Gottschalk said.
The future for the Shadow looks bright. Thanks to the Soldiers of the 3rd BSTB, it has been used to its fullest potential during Operation Enduring Freedom. According to 1st Lt. Morris, improvements are on the radar screen.
"The Shadow will experience some payloads soon which will allow improvements to the aircraft," said 1st Lt. Morris. "A radar system will be added soon, making the device even more effective."
"Aviation has a lot to learn about UAVs, as do other maneuver units," said 1st Lt. Morris. "The Shadow and other unmanned surveillance aircraft like it will begin to play a large role on the battlefield."
1st Lt. Morris and his group have worked as pioneers during their deployment. As one of the first groups to work with unmanned aircraft in Afghanistan, they have set a high standard and forged a challenging path that many will strive to follow.