The Air National Guard has deployed medium-altitude drones to help airlift and search-and-rescue units find victims in disaster-stricken areas, its top general said Saturday.
The Guard is flying unarmed MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reaper drones, as well as manned RC-26 mobile intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes, to scour areas in Texas affected by Hurricane Harvey, according to Air Force Lt. Gen Scott Rice, director of the Air National Guard.
And theyâ€™ll use them for Irma, too, he said.
“Taking a picture of, or a look, or a visibility of what has just happened is very, very important,” Rice told Military.com during an interview at the annual conference of the National Guard Association of the United States in Louisville, Ky.
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“We have enough assets to rescue and help everyone over time, but we donâ€™t have enough assets to rescue everyone right now,” he Â said, emphasizing that surveillance is key to analysing what areas may be “bad versus critical.”
MQ-1s and MQ-9s “do help out. And we do deploy those after the fact” of a hurricane, Rice said.
“The unmanned platforms give us great assessment on which areas have lost infrastructure, which havenâ€™t, and they influence and help us with a response,” the general said.
Rice said the drones are taking snapshots of the scene below as theyâ€™re airborne, not watching singular events occurring in flooded or damaged areas.
Guardsmen monitoring the feeds through the Air Force Distributed Common Ground System, or DCGS, a global intelligence network that process data from aircraft like the Reaper, relay information to units on site, either via phone call or whatever communications are available, Rice said. The Guard operates eight of its own DCGS sites.
Additionally, he said, “we try to deploy our DCGS, that kind of concept, some equipment and people to the location on where a coordination and communication center might be for the state.”
During Harvey, a handful of people and military computer feeds were positioned at the emergency operations center in Austin “to help with the downlink and downfeed from our flying unmanned assets to analyze the data, and present it to the state saying, ‘Hereâ€™s the problem set. How are we going to solve this?'” Rice said.
“Thatâ€™s how we got a lot of people out there to do all those rescues we did,” he said. Some parts of Texas are still in rescue and recovery mode.
Rice explained the use of the intelligence drones is permitted via Title 32, which as authorized by the state requesting the aid, allows for the Guard to use operational resources on U.S. soil.
“Instead of ISR, we do IAA — Incident Awareness Assessment. A way to say, weâ€™re using the same piece of equipment but weâ€™re using it on a totally different focus…to find and save lives as opposed to find and protect ourselves from the enemy,” he said.
When asked how many remotely piloted aircraft are often deployed Rice said few — definitely “less than a dozen.”
Advantages of RC-26
By comparison, the RC-26B — a C-26 Metroliner modified with electronic surveillance equipment — provides better situational awareness in U.S. airspace — pilot to pilot, that is.
Rice said the Air National Guard has been heavily using them for the wildfires burning in Montana, Washington, Oregon and California.
When an RC-26 pilot is flying, he has the sense of “see and avoid other aircraft,” he said. But an unmanned aircraft cannot always “see and avoid” something else in the sky, especially during wildfire season or if clouds linger after a large storm.
As technologies evolve, aircraft will better “sense and avoid” in national airspace, Rice said.
“Weâ€™re changing that airspace — and weâ€™ve been working on it for 10 years to change the nature of the airspace,” Rice said.
“In 2020, the basis of safety for the US airspace will be sense and avoid, meaning, anything that flies in the airspace will have to have a sensor that talks to all platforms flown,” he added, referring to the latest version of the satellite-based transponder known as the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B.
At this point in time, less than half of all Air Force aircraft are ready, Rice said.
With a man in the cockpit of the Metroliner, the Air Force isnâ€™t as limited by Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The service needs extra permissions from the FAA to operate unmanned systems in the airspace, Rice explained.
Large Presence for Irma
Rice said the Air Force is closely monitoring how it will work at Floridaâ€™s operations center in Tallahassee as Irma moves north. Weather forecasters and scientists cautioned Irma has potential to damage major parts of the Florida peninsula.
As a result, Rice said the Guard added more DCGS-type personnel for IAA and also some more search and rescue teams to stand by for Irma.
“The size of the presence is larger,” he said.
The general says anticipating the needs for major national events has always been a challenge — but the military seems to be getting better at the response.
“Everytime we have an event we learn something new,” Rice said.
“We learn something new to get after, what Iâ€™m after, which is the balance between being structured, being legal, being appropriate and using a process that spends the right amount of money, and [being at the] right place at right time, and peopleâ€™s effort in the right place at the right time…paired with, ‘How do I get there faster quicker without restraints?'” he said.