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Unmanned aircraft enhances Army Guard response capabilities

By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith | National Guard Bureau | Dec. 6, 2018

ARLINGTON, Va. - In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence and during recent Northern California wildfires, Army National Guard members deployed two types of unmanned aircraft systems that allowed for greater coordination of response efforts.

The RQ-11B Raven and the RQ-7B Shadow augment the utility capabilities of manned aircraft, such as the UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters, said Christina Engh, an aviation management and program analyst with the Army Guard.

"We want to be able to use our Black Hawks and Lakotas to lift people, transport food and water and Soldiers - instead of using them to see if a dam is going to break," she said.

Engh added that with these unmanned aircraft platforms, Army Guard units gathered situational awareness of disaster scenes and shared that information with other Guard elements, emergency officials and first responders.

"They can be the eyes for the on-scene commander or whoever is commanding an emergency management center," she said.

Engh said the rapid deployment capability of an unmanned aircraft provides an immediate benefit to those responding to a disaster. If the mission is dangerous to ground or air personnel, it "is the perfect opportunity for this type of unmanned aircraft," she said.

The Shadow, which requires five Soldiers to operate, can be launched a safe distance from a disaster area because of its nine-hour maximum flight time, said Engh.

"If you are close to the fire, that puts Soldiers in harm's way," she said. "For the California fires, they were able to launch the Shadow 30 miles away from the fire and get in and see what's going on and bring it back."

The Raven, weighing slightly more than four pounds, requires only one Soldier to launch it, allowing for low-altitude flyovers. 

"With the Raven, Soldiers can be closer to the natural disaster and quickly determine what's going on," said Engh.

Similar to other unmanned systems, the Raven and the Shadow have infrared capabilities that can help identify responders on the ground, a feature that proved useful for nighttime operations during the Northern California wildfires, said Engh.

"What was unique about flying the Shadow at night during the recent California wildfires is it is able to identify where the fire crews were because of that infrared capability," she said.

Like the Shadow, the Raven made use of electro-optics that provided detailed images of a damaged area.

After the flooding caused by Hurricane Florence, Army Guard and civilian authorities compared images from a Raven to maps of the area around a South Carolina water treatment facility, said Engh.

"We were able to take Google maps and say 'It's supposed to look like this, but this is what it actually looks like,'" she said. "And based off of the terrain, they can determine what is flooded."

Engh said the domestic use of the Raven and Shadow has the continued potential to enhance the Army Guard's ability to support civilian authorities in a natural disaster.

"I think that it just really opens up the door to show that this [technology] is not just for war," she said. "These are assets that can be used to help out all of our humanitarian missions."