UAVs protect U.S. troops in Iraq

By RICHARD TOMKINS   |   Jan. 28, 2009 at 10:57 AM
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BAQUBA, Iraq, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Unmanned aerial vehicles have proven their worth in the war on terror as reconnaissance and surveillance platforms that provide battlefield commanders with real-time, optically enhanced streaming video of terrain, suspicious movements and intelligence-driven targets of interest.

On the brigade level, the Shadow-200 tactical UAV stands out. On the battalion level and lower, it's the Raven, a hand-launched UAV just 38 inches in length, with a 5-foot wingspan and with nose and side-mounted cameras. The battery-operated vehicle is so small, it can be packed in a suitcase and assembled in minutes. It can take to the air for about 60 minutes to provide soldiers in the field with real-time imagery of what lies ahead, although its cameras lack a zoom capability.

But neither the Shadow nor the Raven is weapons-capable. The Predator-MQ1, however, is another matter. It's the big boy on the block with lethal punch to its payload, as terrorists in Iraq as well as Afghanistan have found out.

"It's one of the most asked-for assets," said Lt. Col. Debra Lee, commander of the Air Force's 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. "There's a kind of bidding war that goes on for its time."

The Predator is described by the Air Force as a "medium-altitude, long-endurance aircraft system for interdiction and conducting armed reconnaissance against critical, perishable targets." It's 27 feet long, 6.9 feet high and has a wingspan of 48.7 feet. It's powered by a four-cylinder, 110-hp engine and cruises at speeds from 85 to 135 mph at heights of up to 25,000 feet. Its range is more than 400 miles.

The electronics goody bag consists of a daytime variable-aperture TV camera, a variable-aperture infrared camera for low-light/night filming and other sensors that are packed under the nose in a basketball-sized and -shaped housing that rotates 360 degrees. The cameras stream real-time video to centers in the United States as well as to ground commanders closer to its flight sectors through satellite links. The cameras' optical zoom capabilities -- six step, 155x optical zoom -- can be enhanced two times and four times digitally. Its electronics also allow the Predator's cameras to "see" through smoke and haze.

"The Predator B -- MQ-9 -- can also carry 500-pound bombs," said Lee, normally a B-1 bomber pilot. "We had some here, but they're in Afghanistan now. But we hear we may be getting some again soon."

The upgraded Predator is a 40-foot turboprop with a ceiling of 50,000 feet.

Lee's unit is located at Joint Base Balad, which is north of Baghdad and west of Baquba. She and her 20 personnel, who include civilian contractors who maintain the Predators and their electronics, handle the birds during takeoff and landing phases.

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