ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The Army is flying a new bird over south central Alaska — and the pilots sit in the back of a Humvee.
Paratroopers with the 425 Brigade Special Troops Battalion on Thursday trained with a RQ7 Shadow unmanned aircraft system. The remotely operated aircraft are designed to provide reconnaissance for troops without putting observers in danger.
The unmanned aircraft provide near real-time video and information from infrared sensors. Operators can't distinguish individual faces, said Sgt. Brandon Byers, but they can detect heat signatures and vehicle tracks.
"They're able to distinguish the features and different marks on the ground," he said.
Byers oversees the maintenance section. Besides the usual repairs, the unit launches the unmanned aircraft from pneumatic catapult launchers mounted on trailers.
The system is made by AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems of Hunt Valley, Md. The last price Byers heard for each aircraft was $1.25 million, but it's probably more now.
"We're constantly upgrading payloads," he said. "Bigger, better things."
The drones come with two sets of wings. On Thursday, Byers' crew had outfitted "El Super Beasto II," an unmanned aircraft painted with eyeballs and a grinning set of choppers, with the shorter 14-foot wings. They hold 44 liters of aviation gas and can fly four to six hours, depending on conditions.
The RQ7 also comes with 20-foot wings that carry 55 liters of fuel and make smoother, better landings, Byers said.
"Those things will go nine hours all day, no matter what the altitude," he said.
Soldiers for the training session rolled the 12-foot drone up to the bottom of the launcher's launch rail and into a cradle. They warmed up the engine for about 30 minutes with Super Beasto poised at a roughly 40-degree angle. The engine sounded like a souped-up lawnmower before one last revving. The crew chief, Spec. Josue Montanez, used a handheld device connected to the launcher by cable to fling the drone skyward.
A two-person crew in a heated trailer on the back of a Humvee took over the controls. Sgt. Brian Hardy and Pvt. Bradley Johnson watched computer screens and toggled a joy stick, tracking the drone's flight and seeing what it saw through its cameras.
In the field, pilots can pass control of a drone to crews set up 30 to 50 kilometers (18.6 miles to 31 miles) away.
"If you have those set up throughout, you can just extend that range," Byers said.
Super Beasto carried a laser-designation payload for the training Thursday. In a real mission, if coordinates for directing fire were not available, the pilots could deploy the laser on the unmanned aircraft to light up a target and guide a missile fired from an attack helicopter.
"Their missile syncs onto that," Byers said. "Problem solved."
The soldiers generally don't train with the unmanned aircraft when it rains or snows to prevent damage to electronics. Icing is also a threat, Byers said.
To land, the operators give a "return home" command. An automated landing system guides the drone to a touchdown point, Byers said.
Arresting gear — wires stretched perpendicular across the runway — catch a tailhook on the drone the same way an aircraft carrier stops a jet. If the drone misses the pendant lines, a net is the last resort to bring it to a stop.