Video:UAVs at work
FORWARD OPERATION BASE KALSU, Iraq — The whine of propellers can be heard around the clock on this sprawling base south of Baghdad.
The aircraft soaring above don’t have pilots or munitions on board. They are unmanned aerial vehicles, providing an eye in the sky for commanders and troops on the ground.
Soldiers with the 504th Military Intelligence Company provide the 172nd Infantry Brigade with a fleet of remote-controlled aircraft. At about 350 pounds, the Shadow 200 — with a new and improved camera — can remain in the air for hours, offering a near real-time video feed.
"We can cover the whole battle space from this location," said Sgt. 1st Class Lucas Johnson, Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems platoon sergeant.
"If the brigade commander has some target development he wants to work on or see if there are actually [Iraqi security forces] where they are supposed to be, they can send us rather than having to send out a convoy rolling on the ground looking for stuff and have them potentially getting blown up."
The high-demand aircraft are best used to support raid missions, but with relatively few raids in the area because of the improved security situation, the UAVs are performing route reconnaissance. This month the aircraft kept a lookout to see whether insurgents planted roadside bombs during a massive pilgrimage to Karbala for al-Arba’een, one of the holiest events in the Shiite calendar.
The Shadows take off from a launcher rail system that hurls the aircraft to 70 mph in just more than a second, generating 8 Gs on takeoff. Operators remotely control the aircraft, and an automated landing system lands the UAVs.
"The software brings it down all by itself," said Sgt. Christopher Hall, standardizations operator for the UAVs and FOB Kalsu. "It requires no input from us. The only thing we monitor is tail winds, and we can manually wave the aircraft off — make it do a missed approach so it can come around and do it again."
When flying at altitude, the UAVs are out of range of most small arms weapons insurgents have used to try to down the aircraft.
"In [Operation Iraqi Freedom] II, we had plenty of people trying to shoot RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and AK-47s at it," Johnson said. "You just kind of watch it with the camera. You’re like, ‘Uh, not going to make it. Sorry, buddy.’  "
And in the event a UAV goes down, it offers an advantage compared to a piloted aircraft.
"If one of these does end up going down, it’s a lot better to lose just a piece of equipment rather than a pilot where you have to worry about not only about the equipment he’s flying but the soldiers’ lives trying to recover him."