Unmanned aircraft training takes off at Mass. base
A South Carolina National Guard soldier launches a Raven reconnaissance aircraft during an urban live-fire exercise, at Fort Irwin, Calif., on Oct. 13, 2011.
The Cape Cod (Mass.) Times
CAMP EDWARDS, Mass. — Army Sgt. Antonio Stringham looks as if he's holding one of those toy gliders for sale at a mall kiosk — the kind you toss in the air and catch as it circles around.
But that's no toy in the North Carolina soldier's grasp. It's a 36-inch, 4.4-pound unmanned aircraft equipped with two high-powered cameras — one of them infrared for night vision — known as a Raven.
"Oh, I almost footballed it," Stringham yells, as he tosses the lightweight plane into the air.
To throw a Raven, you need to be more javelin thrower than Tom Brady, said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Daniel MacSwain, one of four master trainers at the Army National Guard base on the Upper Cape.
"Climb, climb, climb," shouted Sgt. Jorge Ramos, another master trainer running a class Friday teaching soldiers how to control the Raven. "There you go, nice and smooth."
Flying at altitudes from 500 to 1,000 feet, the Raven can fly up to 6 miles at 26 knots, sending back real-time footage of enemy movements to a soldier watching on a laptop computer.
A second soldier controls the aircraft by watching it through a viewfinder and using a remote control.
"This gives us a chance to look at the enemy and persons of interest," Sgt. Richard Johns, another instructor, said. Soldiers can cut the power to the battery-operated engine to do covert operations, he said. "It minimizes your exposure to the enemy."
The Raven is a fairly new arrow in the Massachusetts Guard's quiver. MacSwain began training soldiers in June, and Camp Edwards became the first Guard base in the country to provide such training, although Mississippi followed close behind.
A total of four classes have been held at Camp Edwards and more than 30 soldiers from across the country have taken part.
"You used to have to send two soldiers over the hill with rifles and if they came back, you knew you were good," MacSwain said Friday as two teams of soldiers went through training.
Each of the planes cost about $15,000. A full set, which includes three planes, an antenna, two controllers, cameras and a laptop, costs $75,000, MacSwain said.
MacSwain has never used the Raven in combat.
"I've trained with guys who have used it, and they really love it," he said. "They like the ability to look ahead and see what they're walking into."
Because they're used on a military base with other aircraft — Coast Guard planes and Jayhawk helicopters, as well as Guard Blackhawks — MacSwain coordinated the training with Air Station Cape Cod and the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We want to make sure we don't affect training or the real-world mission of the Coast Guard," he said.
There are no enemies at Camp Edwards to conduct surveillance on, so the soldiers spy on tanks and forklifts strategically placed on one of the training ranges. Pop-up targets also are used.
By completing the training, soldiers are qualified to use the systems on the front lines. Previously, a soldier would have to travel to Army bases in Georgia or Alabama for the training.
The Raven can fly as long as wind speeds don't exceed 20 knots.
It also can withstand a quarter-inch of rain per hour. "Snow doesn't really bother it," MacSwain said.
At the end of the flight, a Raven appears to stop and come straight down. It hits the ground with a thud and smashes into eight pieces, which elicits laughs from the instructors and soldiers training.
"It's supposed to break apart," MacSwain said.