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ROVER adds extra set of eyes to sky

by Ann Patton
U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs

8/1/2006 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- A demonstration of the Remote Operated Video Enhanced Receiver during field training here on July 28 allowed basic cadets an opportunity to see how an extra set of eyes in the sky is a critical weapon in military arsenals.

"It's important to take a new group of leaders and have them interface on the battlefield with real-time heroes and to see their courage, honor and initiative," said Lt. Col. Gregory Harbin of the ROVER demonstration team, which included decorated combat operators. 

The ROVER demo served as a mini-laboratory, exploring the possibility of integrating it into curricula for military academies and other military organizations throughout the service branches. 

Lt. Col. Mike Wermuth, the academy's director of geosciences, is enthusiastic about the demonstration and its possible curricula integration. 

"I thought it was great, and I'm sure it will be better in the future, especially after presentations at West Point and ROTC units at Ft. Lewis," he said, pointing out demo leaders plan to refine their presentations after each site visit. 

Colonel Wermuth said geospatial technology and intelligence is rapidly expanding. As a response to that trend, the academy has changed the title of geography major to a major in geospatial science. 

The two-year-old ROVER system looks simple. A laptop with cables and wires attached receives video captured by an unmanned aerial vehicle. The video shows real-time, nearby dangers and helps ground troops make quick decisions regarding air strikes. Videos during the academy demonstration streamed from cameras aboard the small Raven UAV flying overhead. 

"This is a demonstration of the kind of warfare we're growing toward," Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said. 

He visited the demo site in Jacks Valley here July 28 and emphasized the importance of receiving cadet feedback on the technology's development. 

"It's like talking on the telephone," said Colonel Harbin, who is assigned to the 609th Combat Operations Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. "We see what the pilots see." 

Using Global Positioning System technology, ROVER shortens talk time describing targets and coordinating attacks, reducing it to seconds rather than minutes. Troops in the field can also receive video imagery from Predator aircraft, C-130s equipped with a Scathe View imaging system or fighters carrying Sniper targeting pods. 

ROVER is highly precise. It can direct strikes against insurgents within 75 meters of troops without endangering the troops. 

"We can target people's noses," Colonel Harbin said. 

He cited an incident where an identified insurgent was riding a donkey. The insurgent was killed but his donkey was not. 

"Situational awareness is the key," said Army Maj. David Bristol, the assistant product manager for the Raven UAV. 

The system can operate for day and night videos, plus map and save images. Images are captured at 30 frames per second. 

The Raven UAV used during the academy demonstration looks more like an overgrown model airplane than a weapon. Its wingspan stretches to only five feet and its length is a mere 38 inches. Made of Kevlar, the drone is launched in minutes by hand and only requires a pilot to maneuver it and another person to monitor incoming information. It can be programmed for routes and target areas or be flown remotely by the operator. 

The Raven has 45 to 60 minutes of flight time on one battery. Upon landing, it hovers, then drops to the ground where it breaks into pieces to await for reassembly. The drone can travel up to 34 miles per hour and is flown to search for improvised explosive devices and perform reconnaissance for patrols. It is virtually silent in the air. 

At four and a half pounds, a ROVER can be transported in a ruck sack. Retired Master Sgt. Kyle Stanbro, who served three tours in Iraq, remembers traveling with a ROVER by whatever means available. 

"We moved on foot, horse, donkey and vehicle," he said. The technology directly aided in destroying 65 enemy vehicles in six and a half hours. "We would have done more but ran out of vehicles to target." 

As sophisticated as it is electronically, ROVER is user-friendly. Most users quickly become savvy in its operation. 

Not only is ROVER saving ordnance, more importantly it is saving lives. While ground forces are on patrol, the Raven can see beyond buildings and spot terrorists running to engage a patrol. 

"This is something that will simply save your life," Colonel Harbin said. 

In combat as well, ROVER can also reduce collateral damage. Sergeant Stanbro recalled an incident in Iraq where a local citizen reported suspicious activity on a soccer field. Images streamed into the ROVER were only those of children enjoying a pick-up soccer game. 

"The system has also sparked security development for homeland disasters, borders and garrisons," Major Bristol said. 

The technology aided in search and rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina by capturing video images for responders to use in searches for survivors and assessing damage.
The ROVER also showed up at a Kerry Underwood concert at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama and was launched from the top of a building for security. 

Colonel Harbin wants to see the ROVER technology integrated into course work and training "sooner than later." 

Military communications advanced from carrier pigeons in World War I to radio communication in World War II. Both became institutionalized in terms of communication. 

The colonel wants to see the same for video. 

"These are 21st century warriors for sure," he said of the academy class of 2010, who will work with this technology in the future.

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