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Eye in the sky

July 12, 2011

By Spc. Darriel Swatts

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 12, 2011) A small, raptor-like unmanned aerial system called the ScanEagle is providing Soldiers in Iraq with an ever-vigilant eye in the sky.

ScanEagles launched from Camp Taji are proving their worth by identifying possible threats and providing overwatch security for troops on the ground.

“When you are on the ground, you don’t know what is coming up 10 miles ahead of you. You’re just not going to see that far with the naked eye,” said Sgt. Michael Diamondson, mission commander for ScanEagle operations at Taji. “But, when you have a bird up at 4,000 feet zooming in on what’s going on ahead of you, he’s going to be able to identify things that are going on and notify you immediately if something is out of the ordinary, giving you plenty of time to take the proper course of action to handle the upcoming situation.”

The ScanEagle Operations team is attached to the 8th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment, which is part of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, currently deployed to Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. The ScanEagle team is made up of eight Soldiers from the 8-229 ARB and the 6th Squadron, 17th Calvary Regiment, as well as several civilian contractors.

“Some of the things we do with the ScanEagle are survey areas for our supporting units. We scan routes to make sure they are clear, and point out anything suspicious, and we provide overwatch security,” said Spc. Jonathan Bogasky, a ScanEagle operator. “It’s a nice way to keep eyes on what’s going on without having to have our guys out there patrolling the ground. Plus, we can see a lot more than the guys on the ground.”

ScanEagle weighs about 40 pounds and has a 10-foot wingspan. They are launched off a catapult, and instead of landing on a runway, they fly toward a device called a SkyHook which snatches them out of the air. They were originally designed to be launched off fishing boats to spot schools of fish, before their military duties.

“Recently, we were called to help identify a possible threat. Sure enough, when we got there, there was a vehicle full of bombs and there was a guy wiring up a bunch of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) at a chokepoint in the road,” Diamondson said. “We were able to fly to the location, identify what was going on, were able to see how many people were involved and what they were doing at that time. Seeing all of that allowed us to warn an upcoming convoy of the threat and get our guys out there to take care of that threat.”

“Flying the Scan Eagle is a lot like flying in a video game, but you, as an operator, can’t forget that there is and actual plane out there,” said Steve Lister, a contractor and site lead for ScanEagle on Taji. “If something goes wrong, there’s not a reset button. There is going to be expensive damage, and depending on where it lands, there could be loss of life too. You’ve just got to remember it’s real, despite how much it may seem like a game.”

The ScanEagle has been flown in Iraq since 2004. But there is no military occupational specialty dedicated to ScanEagle operations.

“I’m an 11B (infantryman). I came across this job by my battalion asking for volunteers who knew the terrain and have experience here in Iraq,” Diamondson said. “Since I’ve been deployed here before as an infantryman on the ground, I have experience and know what to look for, so they asked me to come along and here I am. … Now I’m the eye in the sky and have been here since early February.”

The ScanEagle is fairly quiet in flight and stealthy at low altitudes, with low personnel requirements and 24-hour endurance, which gives it some major advantages over rotary wing aircraft and other UASs when it comes to surveillance.

“Another nice thing about the Scan Eagle is that any uniformed service member can recover this airframe. It is light and easily assembled and disassembled,” Diamondson said. “We can deploy from anywhere; we don’t require a runway like the Shadow, Gray Eagle or Predator. We can pick up and move anywhere we are needed. We need hardly any space to launch and recover this aircraft. … If bad weather comes in, the other UASs have to land, but we stay out there and provide 24-hour eyes on surveillance for the folks on the ground.”

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