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ABOARD THE USS PONCE, Persian Gulf — While drones have gained a controversial reputation for their use in targeting suspected terrorists, the ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) played a very different role during a mine countermeasures exercise in the Persian Gulf: monitoring the 35 participating warships.

Each morning it was the first thing to be launched from the USS Ponce, the 5th Fleet’s staging base for the three-week drill, and the last thing to return every evening.

ScanEagle does not need a runway — it has its own launcher and is recovered using a special sky hook contraption. The man-sized drone is so light it can be carried from the flight deck into the ship by a single person. Built by Boeing subsidiary Insitu, Inc., it was first used operationally nearly a decade ago in Iraq.

“We’re able to launch, control it, and exploit data from it entirely from the ship,” said Lt. Nicholas Bleeker, the ScanEagle officer in charge. He said this makes the UAV, which in addition to other sensors also carries an infrared camera for nighttime operations, a valuable asset for commanders coordinating the maritime exercise spread out over an area of several hundred miles.

Bleeker explained that while the minesweeping ships and other assets were doing coordinated maneuvers, senior officers on-board Ponce could view the operation without taking a helicopter that would ordinarily be participating. And since ScanEagle can fly for 20 hours on a gallon of fuel, it’s also extremely cost-effective.

Officials in the joint operations center aboard the Ponce said the UAV proved useful to coordinate assets during the drills by providing an overhead view of what was happening. “Communication can be difficult when you’re trying to coordinate efforts between five or six ships,” Bleeker said. “At a minimum, the decision-makers can understand what is going on and have an immediate knowledge if something goes wrong — speeding up a response to a potential incident.”

ScanEagle also watched out for unexpected ships entering the area. “It ensures that we have good situational awareness about other vessels operating near us.” Bleeker said.

If a warship from another country or a merchant vessel appeared in the area, ScanEagle could be sent to verify what it was and where it was heading. This sort of surface reconnaissance is the drone’s main purpose outside of the exercise.

Last December, Iran claimed to have captured a U.S. Navy ScanEagle operating inside its airspace, although the Navy denied that it lost any of the drones.

simoes.hendrick@stripes.comTwitter: @hendricksimoes

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