CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
There’s more than one way to count a herd and for Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 4, Marine Aircraft Group 41, Marine Forces Reserve that meant breaking out the RQ-7 Shadow Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System for wildlife population survey at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
The RQ-7, as its name suggests, is an unmanned aircraft flown from the ground and has been used for tactical aerial reconnaissance in Iraq and Afghanistan making this weekend’s mission for environmental stewardship the first of its kind.
Wildlife surveys are not a new concept for the base, the results are used to determine how healthy the animals are and how sustainable their population is. The missions have historically been conducted from military or contracted helicopters.
Through the use of UASs like the RQ-7, the Marine Corps has a low-cost alternative in hand. The unmanned aircraft uses a fraction of the fuel a helicopter requires and can stay airborne longer. It also offers the benefit of reducing crew requirements, making it no wonder units have begun utilizing UASs for a variety of unforeseen tasks.
"My buddies who I was in Afghanistan with are using UAS to do a multitude of different things.” said Gunnery Sgt. Bill Franceschini, Operations Chief for VMU-4. “Out in Colorado they’re spotting wildfires with it. You can see a fire from 15-20 kilometers away.”
For UAS operators and technicians, the count also offers the opportunity to train in the real-life scenario of searching for and detecting heat signatures in mountainous terrain. These skills pull heavily from those needed on the battlefield and Franceschini indicated that the mission provided valuable training for future operations.
“It’s actually a mission in the day and age of notional missions and enemies,” said Franceshini. “The whole point of the squadron is to have the Reservists ready, responsive, relevant and able to go out the door and do a mission if called upon.”
UASs may still be new in the Corps’ aviation arsenal but for now it looks like they’re here to stay. The RQ-21 Black Jack is scheduled to replace the RQ-7 in a few months, giving Marines like Franceschini an opportunity to train on more advanced systems.
In the meantime counting deer and buffalo has the RQ-7 home…home on the range.