Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany Commanding Officer Col. Michael Fitzgerald officially signed for three unmanned aerial systems, making it the third Marine Corps Installations East base to receive drone kits, Oct. 2.
This after several personnel aboard the base completed two weeks of rigorous training with a project team, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Institute for the Environment, Institute for Marine Science, Atollo LLC. and Duke University Marine Lab.
Aligned with the Commandant’s line of effort to optimize installations to support sustained operations, the drones provide a plethora of benefits from natural resources management to force protection and security.
“We were very excited. Getting the drones provides us an opportunity to expand our abilities to do great maps and also do surveys for wildlife,” Julie Robbins, manager, Natural Resources, MCLB Albany, remarked.
Natural Resources, which is part of Installation and Environmental Division, supports the warfighter and ensures the training areas are in good condition for active-duty Marines.
In supporting the mission, Robbins’ role focuses on promoting good stewardship of the land while also staying compliant with federal regulations.
In essence, the management of the base’s natural resources sustains the Marine Corps’ mission.
“It’s a little bit indirect. It’s not the same as an active range where a Marine can practice artillery fire,” Susan Cohen, the project's lead and associate director, Institute for the Environment, UNC, added. “But if we don’t manage natural resources to support training needs and stay compliant with the law then we’re not serving the mission.”
Having the drone capability comes with a nearly $100,000 cost savings to the installation that would otherwise be spent on contracting with an aircraft company to fly over the base.
And that’s thanks to the UNC team who worked diligently to get the greenlight for the project to take flight across Marine Corps Installation East bases.
Cohen explained the project was funded by the Department of Defense by the Environmental Security Technology Certification Program, a DOD-funded environmental and technology research program.
Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point have received drone training, with Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Marine Corps Support Facility Blount Island on tap for sessions in the next three months.
Cohen explained the speed of certification of MCIEAST installations is due to leadership believing in the vision.
“If we don’t have signatures, and we don’t have the support of [commanding officers], [commanding generals], leadership and air space managers, then we’re grounded,” Cohen said.
Drone Types & Key Benefits
A key reason behind the approval of the drone training is the abundance of benefits. For MCLB Albany, it’s the enhancement of situation awareness.
Personnel were immersed in both classroom and hands-on training that focused on Federal Aviation Administration regulations, DOD cybersecurity expectations, mission planning, flight risks and most importantly how to operate the drones. Staff also studied the FAA Part 107 course, which is the standard training and [certification] for drone pilots.
“You have to get your data in a safe way and you've got to plan it right,” Cohen added.
Cohen’s team put together a starter kit of two types of drones that was relatively easy to use for a number of scenarios.
With countless ways to use it, two quadcopters are predicted to be the workhorses for the base. The key features include: 4K camera, thermal signature, rapidly deployable and stability.
“It’s really been a tried and true piece of equipment in a lot of different scenarios and [varied] climates so we know that it is a good quality drone,” Cohen remarked.
The thermal technology would also come in handy in spotting injured wildlife and pinpointing hotspots in a fire.
Natural Resources conducts annual prescribed burns between January and July. With a team of three, staff noted it’s often difficult to monitor a large blaze.
“What that will allow us to do is put the drone up in the air quickly, run the perimeter and see what’s going on around the edge of our fire,” Scott Dismuke, biological science technician, Natural Resources, MCLB Albany, explained. “If we try to do [it] on our [utility terrain vehicles], it could take us 10 to 15 minutes so we can be more effective and have safer outcomes with our prescribed fires.”
The fixed-winged drone, called a sensefly eBee X, is designed for mapping. Some of the key features include five-band multispectral, thermal as well as RGB sensors and GPS capabilities. Some products include 2-D orthomosaics and 3-D point cloud, which can be used for determining the height of trees and analyzing buildings.
“You can fly the entire base with that drone,” Cohen added.
It’s the first mission Robbins plans to tackle.
“I think our first mission is going to be redoing all of the aerial imagery for the installation [but this time] have the fine detail these drones provide us,” Robbins said.
Other missions for the Natural Resources will focus on surveying and creating maps while also analyzing the data from the aerial photos.
“Both of the drones are going to be used to do surveys,” Robbins remarked. “The eBee is the one we will probably use more often to develop some of our maps here on the installation, including creating 3-D maps of our forests stands.”
Force Protection & Security
Although monitoring of the natural resources is the sole target of the drone course, those skills are transferrable to personnel working in force protection and security.
With the high altitude of a drone, it can be used to look at the boundaries of the fence line. The drones can scan an area to tell how secure it is.
“It will help by actually giving us a common operating picture of what’s actually happening and what’s developing without actually getting in harm’s way where [before] it would take a body to go or check something out … that drone [poses] no threat,” Marvin Thomas, base chemical protection officer, Mission Assurance, MCLB Albany, explained.
Thomas added the dangerous nature of chemical or hazmat hazards. Having drones reduces the level of risks and exposure to a contaminated site.
“We’re able to utilize a drone and not necessarily [send] first responders up close and personal to the [hazard and still] get a visual of what’s there and how much contamination might be there,” Thomas said.
The drones will be beneficial to several divisions across the installation.
“It will be great asset for this installation as well as any other installation as far as the first responder, forester, park ranger [and] mission assurance section. It’s just overall a win/win asset for any installation,” Thomas concluded.
The drones will be managed by the Installation and Environmental Division’s Natural Resources section.
“I think it’s a good opportunity for Natural Resources to interact with other sections on the base to help develop those working relationships,” Robbins said. “I think the drones bring everyone together at the same table.”