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Minnesota National Guard
Eyes in the sky: Minnesota Guard unmanned drone team supports Afghanistan operations

KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — “We have reports of the Afghan National Army sitting on an improvised explosive device at this location,” says a voice over the radio in a cramped control shelter Aug 25 “Can you give me an ETA?”

“Roger,” replies one of the unmanned aerial system operators listening in “We’re 22 kilometers out It’ll be 10 mikes”

That conversation wouldn’t be out of place in a fast paced spy thriller But for the Unmanned Aerial Surveillance (UAS) Platoon of Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Task Force Duke, a conversation such as this, between UAS operators and their crew chief, happens on a regular basis at Forward Operating Base Sharana, Afghanistan

The UAS Shadow is a remotely controlled aircraft with a camera attached that provides commanders with reconnaissance and surveillance without putting any soldiers in harm’s way, said US Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Percell Hunter, a UAS platoon leader for Company B, STB, and native of Newport News, Va



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In addition to its reconnaissance capabilities, the system can also point out targets to ground troops, and carry a communications relay package that allows two groups who are out of line-of-sight from each other to communicate, an ability of great importance in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where TF Duke is operating

It does this by flying between the two groups and bouncing the transmission from one group to the Shadow then to the other group, Hunter said

“It [also] gives commanders a chance to see what they normally can’t,” said US Army Staff Sgt Michael Mikrut, the UAS platoon sergeant and a native of Chicago “The UAS Shadow provides them with a situational awareness they would not normally have”

Being part of the UAS crew means having to juggle a lot of different tasks; for that reason, operators have to be able to multitask, said US Army Sgt Alex Keehn, a UAS operator with the Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard, and a native of Rochester, Minn

“There is so much you have to be aware of when you fly a UAS,” Keehn said “You have to be aware of wind speed, temperature, humidity and other aircraft in the area”

Communication plays a big part in the completion of successful UAS missions, said US Army Sgt Bill Parris, a UAS maintainer with Company B, STB and a native of Pickens, SC

UAS maintainers are responsible for performing maintenance and preflight checks on the aircraft, and helping the operators when the UAS is airborne

“You have to have situational awareness of air traffic or changes in wind speed because the UAS operators can’t see everything,” he explained

For Parris, the conversation between operator and maintainer is like a ping-pong game

With helicopters and other aircraft using the same air space, the maintainer-operator conversation isn’t the only important one, said Mikrut

“There are a lot of airspace communications,” Mikrut said

“Sometimes the airspace you are flying in gets taken away because another aircraft needs it more You have to be quick to respond in those situations”

To prepare for deployment, the UAS team undertook several flight operations training exercises, Hunter said In these operations they endeavored to prepare their maintainers, who work on the aircraft, and operators, who fly the aircraft, to do their job without needing someone looking over their shoulder

The training they received at their home-base of Fort Knox is a benefit to them in Afghanistan, Parris said However, they received several new soldiers, since arriving in country who did not have the chance to train with the unit

“It’s kind of a trial by fire” Parris said “They just have to get in there and do it While deployed they have plenty of opportunity to train and learn their job”

The environment of eastern Afghanistan has many differences compared to Fort Knox that the crew has to be aware of when flying, Mikrut said For starters, they are at an altitude of 7,300 feet and the air density is different than it would be at sea level, or even Fort Knox This makes takeoffs and landings more complicated

Being aware of these differences is important and knowing what to do in any conditions can mean the difference between landing a bird safely, or losing it, Mikrut said

Story by Spc Tobey White





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