No matter what you call them—unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned aircraft systems, or remotely piloted aircraft—they are the wave of the future, and Col. Anthony E. Schiavi wants to see them become a part of the future of the Massachusetts Military Reservation.
Col. Schiavi, who is leaving his job as commander of the 102nd Intelligence Wing to take on a newly created executive director position on the MMR, wants the base to be able to take the lead in that field. He is hoping the MMR will play an important role in the development of what were once referred to as “drones.”
The colonel, whose new job will involve coordination among the major commands and other agencies housed on the base, is not advocating that role as an outgrowth of his new position. A member of Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray’s task force, whose mission is to support and protect the missions, jobs and economic investments associated with the commonwealth’s bases, Col. Schiavi has a vision of what the MMR can become.
The US Congress, he said, has mandated that unmanned aircraft systems be integrated into the US national airspace. That means exploring everything from safely navigating a remotely piloted aircraft in the same airspace as conventionally piloted craft, around buildings and other objects, and over spaces where citizens have an expectation of privacy.
The Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to designate six sites in the United States, where that integration can be safely explored and tested.
He said he expects the FAA to release what might be comparable to a Request for Proposals in the near future. Col. Schiavi also said that Massachusetts, through MassDevelopment, is working with the state of New York to submit a response to the FAA, hoping that one of those six sites is in the northeast region of the United States.
Col. Schiavi said that the collaboration between the two states would provide a wide variety of climate and topography, along with both controlled and restricted air space, that would make the region the perfect home for such a site.
Kelsey Abbruzzese, a spokesman for MassDevelopment, said her agency, as a member of Lt. Gov. Murray’s Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force, has been exploring the possibility of the Massachusetts Military Reservation becoming one of the sites.
The MMR, Col. Schiavi said, already has FAA-designated restricted air space, something many of the surrounding states do not have. With the cooperation of the US Coast Guard and its air traffic control tower, a goodly portion of the base could be operated as controlled space. He hopes that the Massachusetts National Guard might be persuaded to agree that the MMR would make the ideal site.
For the last several years, the 102nd Intelligence Wing—whose mission is to produce intelligence using the data collected by, for example, unmanned aircraft such as the MQ-1 Predator—has already become a part of a globally networked intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance weapons system.
The 102nd has the ability to accept data from unmanned aerial vehicles operating anywhere in the world, analyze it, and provide intelligence to liaison officers on the ground in locations such as Afghanistan.
Since August of 2011, the Army National Guard has had what is, literally, a hands-on role working with far smaller unmanned aircraft than the Predator. That is when the Air National Guard began to set up a training program for operators of the unmanned aerial system most used by the US Army, the Raven.
The Raven and the slightly larger Puma are the small, hand-launched systems that the Army has used since 2004 to allow commanders in the field to see what is over the horizon without having to put a scout in harm’s way.
The first Raven flew over a restricted area in the center of the Camp Edwards portion of the base on June 1 of this year, said Major Robert W. O’Connell, the Army Aviation Support Facility commander. He said six soldiers, four from Connecticut and two from Massachusetts, have already been trained in their operation.
Chief Warrant Officer Daniel E. MacSwain is the subject matter expert and trainer. A Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Chief MacSwain was first asked to learn to fly the Ravens, lightweight, battery operated, hand-launched aircraft. Then, Major O’Connell said, he was asked to set up a training course to quality others to operate them. He more than rose to the occasion, the major said.
The Ravens operate at the company level, Chief MacSwain said. Those he trains will not only have to understand how to launch and operate the aircraft, they also have to have enough computer background to be able to program them to fly autonomously. Further, when they go back to their companies, they have to be able to convince their commanders of the usefulness of what they have learned.
It is, he said, far easier for young gamers to do than it was for him, since the controls were designed to be similar to those of video games, but those chosen to be trained also have to have the situational awareness of a regular pilot, learning to operate in more than two dimensions.
Most of those who have used the Ravens or Pumas in the field, he said, have nothing but praise for them. They are an invaluable tool. One soldier, Chief MacSwain said, commented that, historically, the commander had to order a young soldier over the hill, and he only knew there was something to watch out for if that soldier did not come back. The use of the unmanned aerial vehicles, with front and side mounted cameras, saves lives.
The national guard operation hopes to be the “center of excellence” for Raven operation in the entire region, becoming the site where soldiers come to train from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York.
The US Coast Guard, operating from Air Station Cape Cod in the southern part of the MMR, has also begun exploring the use of unmanned systems in conjunction with its search and rescue mission, Col. Schiavi said.
Unmanned systems come in all sizes and can be adopted for everything from commercial uses such as exploring the inside of a pipeline with an unmanned aircraft system that could fit in the palm of the hand to large remotely piloted aircraft like the Global Hawk, used for intelligence gathering and surveillance. That vehicle has a wingspan of more than 130 feet and weights about 15,000 pounds.
The uses of remotely piloted aircraft, the experts said, are only limited by the imagination. It is because they could be useful on the domestic front for everything from border patrol or law enforcement to commercial applications, that Congress issued its mandate to the FAA.
The US Air Force prefers the term “remotely piloted aircraft” to the name “drones,” because the name emphasizes the fact that the aircraft are under the control of a pilot. That pilot is just not sitting inside the plane.
Col. Shiavi envisions using the MMR as a base to explore the techniques needed to perfect that control.
Whether or not the MMR becomes one of the six sites, however, the use of RPAs orunmanned aircraft will continue on the base.