Members of the Illinois National Guard were at Camp Ripley near Little Falls, Minn., last week training with their four Shadow drones. The Shadows, which weigh 380 pounds and have a wingspan of 14 feet, are unarmed and have been used primarily for tracking battlefield movement and for protecting bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Maj. Nathan Westby and Staff Sgt. Douglas Morgan of the Bloomington, Ill.-based unit were quite accommodating in explaining the operations of the drones. Save for some restrictions about what the screens in the operating trailer might look like during flight, we were given free rein for getting up close and personal.
Things weren't so accommodating in Grand Forks the week before. North Dakota and Grand Forks are working to become a center for Unmanned Aerial Systems. The Grand Forks Air Force Base has two unarmed Predators stationed for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. When we asked if we could see a Predator on our visit, Border Protection said they could not fit it into their schedule. The Air Force didn't respond to a request.
So Star Tribune photographer Glen Stubbe and I tried to catch a glimpse of the drone landing one night. The locals see them all the time. A contact had informed the base earlier in the day we would be there.
We parked on a dusty county road adjacent to the airport and waited. A State Patrol trooper stopped by to ask what we were up to. Passing truckers were suspicious, we were told. Then a sheriff's deputy stopped by. Fifteen minutes after the deputy left, he returned. Border Protection was on its way, and he had been asked to wait with us. We were still looking in the sky. Shortly after that, two men from Air Force Special Investigations pulled up. Everyone agreed what we were doing was perfectly legal. As we drove back to town, a sheriff's cruiser pulled behind us at a distance. A few miles down the road, it pulled off and a State Patrol cruiser pulled in front of us.
We never saw the drone.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434