CAMP RIPLEY, MINN. – The Shadow, an unmanned aerial vehicle commonly known as a drone, roars to life on the video screen like a powerful snowmobile before it’s launched into the skies on a catapult.
Unfortunately, weather conditions prevented the real thing from taking flight Friday morning as the Minnesota National Guard officially launched its new $3.9 million Unmanned Aircraft Operations Facility.
The Guard has flown UAVs since 2004 and has seven at Camp Ripley: three Shadows, with 14-foot wing spans, and four smaller Ravens, with 5-foot wing spans that can be carried in a backpack, quickly assembled and launched by hand.
The reconnaissance drones do not carry weapons, only sophisticated cameras that help troops see what’s over the next hill, around the next corner or up ahead in the road. The videos and photos they transmit can pinpoint enemy troops or identify a house where they’re holed up.
Staff Sgt. Anna Zoller, who has flown UAVs since ’04, said she’s seen how the drones can save lives during her tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re just flying up and down the roads right now on a simulated mission,” Sgt. Charles Freese said as he sat in front of video screens, guiding the craft’s camera with a joystick as it transmitted images of an Iraqi city taken from 3,000 feet. “We’re looking for anything that looks suspect. We’re the forward eyes for the commander.”
The new facility is capable of storing, maintaining and launching the UAVs, as well as training operators to use them. Guard members from other states also can train at the facility, said unit commander Capt. Eric Lewanski.
The National Guard’s drones have been to Iraq and Afghanistan and back. In Minnesota, they are only allowed to fly at Camp Ripley, restricted airspace that covers 53,000 acres on the ground and 26,999 feet into the air. The military is prohibited from using unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance on citizens under the federal Posse Comitatus Act of 1878.
Although domestic drones can’t be flown in the United States without approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA has said that by 2015, drones will have access to airspace now reserved for pilots. And there is growing public concern about that, both from the standpoint of safety and surveillance.
Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, introduced a bill in February to prohibit state law enforcement agencies from using drones for routine surveillance or to gather evidence against citizens. The bill, which was modeled after similar legislation introduced in Indiana, stalled before it got to committee.
Mark Dunaski, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) and a pilot himself, said he believes that ultimately the military use of drones will be a “minority application.”
For the agencies under the umbrella of the DPS, he said, drones could be used for detecting fires, monitoring river levels, assessing storm damage, surveying pipeline, taking aerial photos of traffic accidents or even law enforcement situations such as a hostage situation.
“We live in a society now where technology is coming so fast and furious, and government tends to move very slowly,” Dunaski said. “I think it behooves us to have these conversations ahead of time.”