By Sgt. Doug Roles
Pennsylvania National Guard
TAJI, Iraq (8/3/09) -- A new unmanned aerial vehicle with "hover and stare" capability gives the high ground to 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team units on Camp Taji, Iraq. Soldiers piloting the Gas Micro Air Vehicle can use it as an extra set of eyes near a patrol or can send the UAV miles ahead to scout beyond the horizon and send back real-time video.
"Independence Brigade" pilots who have used the prototype in Iraq over the past seven months have provided feedback to manufacturer Honeywell. Company engineers have used that input to make modifications to a forthcoming GMAV model.
"It's exciting to hear their ideas that come back," Kevin Bogert, a Honeywell field service engineer working at Camp Taji, said. "For a prototype configuration it's done very well."
"The beauty of the system is you can hover and stare," Bogert said, adding that the GMAV can take snapshots, record video and help Soldiers mark targets.
GMAV can share its video with other computers, allowing Soldiers in multiple locations to view the same footage.
Bogert began instructing nine 56th SBCT Soldiers on the system in mid-December at Fort Polk, La. Training continued when the brigade arrived in Iraq. With trained pilots in its ranks, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard brigade has been able to utilize the GMAV system to a greater extent than its predecessors at Camp Taji.
"The 56th was the first unit to fly missions," Bogert said. "We, Honeywell, were flying the missions for the 25th Infantry Division."
Sgt. Blake Myers of Girard, Pa., with 1st Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, became the first person to fly the GMAV on April 25 while part of a combat unit on a mission outside a base. Honeywell technicians had previously piloted the GMAV from Camp Taji. Myers termed flying GMAV "a blast."
"You have to think three-dimensionally," Myers said. "You have to forget about your left and right and think about the bird's left and right."
"GMAV brings more of a hovering capability. With GMAV I can go right up to the target," Myers added.
Myers said the first flight in April was in support of a mission at a factory near Taji. He explained that as the mission began, he spotted a man armed with an AK47 rifle with the GMAV. He said the man turned out to be a security guard and said use of the GMAV alerted the Soldiers to the presence of a friendly in the area.
"This bird was involved in the Nassir factory [mission]. I always kept it ... ahead so I was facing them [Stryker Soldiers]," Myers said.
Made in Alburquerqe, N.M., the Honeywell micro UAV operates off a two-stroke engine similar to the power unit of a lawn trimmer. Ducted airflow from the unit's fan guides the GMAV through its vertical takeoff and flight.
The system weighs about 45 pounds. Though it is designed to be man-portable, with component carriers attaching to a Soldier's body armor system, 56th SBCT pilots typically don't pack the equipment on their backs. They've been loading the equipment into vehicles and setting it up upon arrival at a mission site.
"Guys are flying this more and more out the back of a Stryker," Bogert said.
Bogert explained that Soldiers here are using the "Block One" configuration, the prototype. Honeywell's "Block Two" fielding of GMAV is to Navy EOD teams in Afghanistan.
Bogert said the "Block Three" configuration, due to the Army in late summer, will cut Soldier exposure time by means of an electronic refueling system.
The new system will be fuel-injected and have its camera mounted on a multi-directional swivel. The prototype's camera is stationary, meaning pilots must move the vehicle to move the camera.
The GMAV is started by a pull cord, similar to a lawnmower, and is moved from its starting base to a takeoff point.
Honeywell has produced 16 of the prototype systems, at a cost of about $400,000 each. Each system includes two UAVs and the control apparatus. Bogert said three systems have been issued for use by 56th brigade. One of those is used by the 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment at Camp Liberty.
Despite the advantage it brings to the fight and the engineering specification involved in keeping the unit aloft, Soldiers have nicknamed the ungainly-looking GMAV the "flying beer keg" among other names.
"We've had it called the 'flying trash can,' also the 'flying mosquito,'" Bogert said.