The Minnesota Army National Guard showed off its new unmanned aircraft training facility at Camp Ripley today. The $4 million facility, the only one of its kind in the region, will improve training for National Guard soldiers who fly small drones to provide video surveillance.
Several soldiers demonstrated their training routine during an open house on Friday.
Two soldiers in fatigues sat in front of video monitors, watching the video feed from a small drone. The scene they're watching appears to be a desert town. A soldier at the controls zoomed the camera in on an intersection where several people are visible, along with a couple of trucks.
The soldiers are flying a small aircraft from their ground control station. One is the pilot, the other the sensor operator -- the one who operates the cameras during a flight. The plane they're flying is called a Shadow, with a wingspan of seven feet.
Staff Sgt. Eli James is trained as a pilot and a sensor operator. He says flying preprogrammed simulations is very similar to flying a real mission.
"This equipment is basically set up to simulate the ground control stations," said James. "The software allows us to run everything from preflight all the way through the mission and landing. You can throw in faults and emergencies, anything to train the guys on."
Down the hall from this simulator room is a hanger where four of the Shadows are kept, ready to fly.
Minnesota Guard members train here once a month. James says the new facility will make that training time much more efficient. In the past, the drones were stored in a garage and shared a landing strip with other aircraft. The systems had to be moved and assembled before crews could launch them, and then torn down when they were done with their training -- all of which added up to an extra day's work.
"Now everything stays in place," said James. "So when our crew does arrive it's just a few minutes they can be out powering up. And they can be in the air in half an hour, 40 minutes -- actually flying, training, getting things done rather than wasting time."
Outside the hanger is a 40-foot-long catapult that launches the aircraft. The pilot and sensor operator sit in a cramped control center mounted on the back of a Humvee. The Humvee can tow the launcher and aircraft.
These aircraft are designed to launch quickly.
"This is a tactical system. On a good day with an experienced crew, from time arriving at a site we can be set up to launch an aircraft in about an hour," he said.
James added that while he was deployed in Afghanistan, his unit flew surveillance missions 24 hours a day when weather permitted.
Weather can limit the use of small drones like the Shadow. Friday was a perfect example -- a demonstration flight planned for this open house was scrubbed because of low clouds and predicted thunderstorms.
This training facility is expected to be busy, because it's one of only a few available to National Guard troops, according to Camp Ripley Commander Scott St. Sauver. The nearest similar facility is in Indiana.
Camp Ripley is a perfect spot for the facility because airspace overhead is already restricted for military use, St. Sauver said. Units in other Midwestern states are asking to use the new unmanned aircraft training center.
"Having an Army airfield really opened the door to to be able to build this facility here, to handle the collective training of National Guard in a regional capacity," said St. Sauver. "Camp Ripley is very large -- one of the largest training centers in the northern United States. So it's become a regional training center in its nature. These types of aircraft just add that capacity to it."
Aviation manufacturers that are developing the next generation of unmanned aircraft for the military will likely use Camp Ripley for testing, St. Sauver said. He also expects Minnesota law enforcement agencies to use the facility in the future as domestic use of drones expands.