TAJI, Iraq — Day and night they can be heard at the airfield — their distinctive hum akin to that of a lawnmower starting — as operations take place around the clock, supporting ground forces throughout the greater Baghdad area.
These rumblings belong to unmanned aerial vehicles, remote controlled planes which help cut down the threat of Improvised Explosive Devices and mortar attacks to convoys, through camera technology which helps detect enemy activity.
The Camp Taji airfield, just north of Baghdad, is the main launching pad for UAV's in and around Iraq's capital city, sending the aircraft to assist in missions several times a day, said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Thompson, from Sweet Home, Ore., first sergeant, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division — Baghdad.
"A UAV is a small plane with a 39 horsepower engine, and right now we have [many] of those which fly every day," Thompson said. "We launch [several] missions a day with the help of five units which are attached to second battalion."
"We don't fly the missions; the main thing we do is launch UAV's and recover them," Thompson said of the mission at Camp Taji. "When the UAV is launched it flies into a different zone and our sister unit picks it up and takes over the mission."
During the missions the UAV's camera, named the 'payload,' can be used to look at things on the ground, which may include people planting IEDs or simply a building that looks suspicious, Thompson said.
"They can zoom in and spot hazards and eliminate [Soldiers] going into that area," Thompson said of the personnel at the airfield controlling the UAV by remote control.
The sister unit then flies the UAV back into the Taji airspace where it is picked up by personnel at the airfield, who land the UAV, recover it and perform maintenance on it to prepare it for the next mission, Thompson explained.
The process of launching a UAV and following its progress is much more complicated than people think, said Capt. Tyler Espinoza, from Grand Junction, Colo., commander, Co. G, 2nd Bn., 1st ACB, with all the regular safety procedures of normal aviation being followed.
"We have checklists like you would for a Black Hawk and all the maintainers, mission commanders and pilots do inspections before a launch," Espinoza said. "A lot of people forget that a UAV is still an aviation mechanism."
Surveillance and reconnaissance are the key words for the UAV mission at Camp Taji, Espinoza said.
"We provide direct protection for the ground guys," Espinoza said. "Situational awareness of the battle spectrum as well as giving guidance, that's what we do."
This is why the motto of the unit is 'guardians,' Espinoza added.
Thompson said the mission of guarding the combat troops has been running according to plan since the 1st ACB took over UAV operations.
"So far we haven't had any incidents or accidents since we've been here," Thompson said. "Usually in the winter there might be more mishaps because it gets cold and they have icing problems with the engines and the carburetors, but so far we haven't missed a mission."
Should a UAV experience difficulties during a mission, there are safety measures installed within the UAV to prevent extensive damage, Thompson said.
"In some instances UAV's have lost their signals, but they have an automatic parachute that can be activated which flips the aircraft upside down to protect the camera when it does land," he said.
The aircraft lands itself through something known as a tactical automated landing system, Thompson said.
"The tower will pick the aircraft up but the computer will actually land the airplane," Thompson continued. "There have been instances of a UAV losing signals with the tower and having a hard landing into the safety net."
So far, knock on wood, it hasn't happened during this deployment, Thompson said.
As for the UAV's distinctive motor which is a mainstay of the airfield?
"You can hear it all night long," Thompson said. "People will say 'those UAV's, there they go again!'"
This work, Unmanned aerial vehicles help protect ground forces through camera technology, by Alun Thomas, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.