STARKE, Fla., - It’s a process that has been years in the making: the Florida National Guard is nearing completion of its 10-week fielding process for the Shadow unmanned aerial system.
Soldiers from Company B, Special Troops Battalion, 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team are spending weeks in the field here at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center flying, testing and maintaining a fleet of four aircraft which will provide commanders with valuable reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition capabilities.
“The Shadow Unmanned Aerial System will be a valuable asset for the Florida National Guard,” said Col. Perry Hagaman, the state aviation officer. “The ability for ground commanders to operate within their own three-dimensional battlespace will greatly assist units such as the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team in conducting their federal mission.”
For the past three years, the Florida National Guard has been preparing for this fielding, obtaining the equipment and putting Soldiers through the rigorous training process to qualify as Shadow operators and maintainers.
“There are almost unlimited possibilities for us to assist commanders on the ground,” said Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Sopczak, the platoon sergeant.
The equipment is useful not only in combat where UAS provides commanders a real-time picture of ongoing operations, but also in its potential for civil support missions at home to provide military and government leaders with valuable imagery of the extent of a disaster.
Although currently, airspace restrictions limit the use of unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration and other government agencies are working to develop procedures and control measures to mitigate the potential for accidents.
“The Shadow UAS provides the Florida National Guard with an alternative to sending Soldiers out into hazardous areas to do reconnaissance and surveillance work,” said Lt. Col. Peter Kaye, the rear detachment commander of the 53rd. “This is true in both our wartime and civil support roles. We could send our Shadows out to look at remote shorelines that are typically accessible only by boat and, at the same time, save time and manpower.”
The system is fairly new to the National Guard, but has been in use in the Army for about 10 years. Each complete Shadow system includes four aircraft, ground control stations and required support equipment. The Army’s unmanned aerial system fleet recently reached a milestone of one million flight hours.
The Shadow UAS platoon will be permanently located at Camp Blanding Joint Training Center and will conduct training flights inside of the restricted airspace surrounding the facility. Local residents may notice the new aircraft; however, the impact to the local area should be minimal as the aircraft generally fly at higher than 3,000 feet above ground level.
According to the UAS manufacturer, AAI, there have been no incidents to date in which the safety of a person on the ground has been jeopardized during operation of the Shadow UAS.
UAS operators are held to the same standard as manned aircraft pilots and must pass a flight physical. They also receive the same Federal Aviation Administration ground school training as pilots.
During the rigorous training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Soldiers learn army aviation, land navigation, imagery target acquisition and other skills that will help them to provide accurate and timely information.
“Our operators and crews follow the same training, certification and safety guidelines as any other aviation unit in the Army,” said Kaye.
To maintain their readiness, each operator must fly 24 flight hours every six months. This requirement ensures that Soldiers will stay busy on drill weekends and provides Soldiers with plenty of “hands on” experience.
“There is a lot of opportunity and knowledge one can gain from coming to this platoon,” said Sgt. Tony Tillis, a Shadow maintainer.