A battle without bruises

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Megan Hoffmann
  • Wyoming Military Department
Imagine hearing the following news: all-out-war has been declared. As a military member you have the unfortunate job of relaying this information to family and friends. You are going into battle and might not make it back out, at least not without battle scars. . . or will you?

Now imagine possessing the ability to perform search and rescue missions, reconnaissance and surveillance, de-arm explosives, and bomb enemy targets, all in hostile territory and austere conditions without putting a single human life in jeopardy ever again. Now the idea of all-out-war doesn't seem quite as dangerous, does it?

That's absurd some might say. How would you ever accomplish such a feat without a human presence?

The Joint Training and Experimentation Center (JTEC) was formed with that exact goal in mind. Their existence was born via the idea that various aerial and ground platforms could be constructed to allow numerous entities to complete their missions while saving money, and most importantly, human life.

Robotics would be developed to de-arm explosives and aerial systems would take flight without a human presence in the aircraft required to pilot them; otherwise known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS.) Starting to sound strangely like something out of a sci-fi movie, isn't it?

It was these dreams that laid the foundation for the establishment of the JTEC program in 2004. Two years later in 2006, the program was backed by the late U.S. Senator Craig Thomas as he approached Congress with the program's proposal and funding requirements.

Thomas, Wyoming's senior senator, envisioned the stand-up of a program at the Camp Guernsey JTEC that would serve not only the Wyoming National Guard, but all branches of service across the entire nation, as well as local residents, Police departments, Sheriffs agencies, Wyoming Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Additionally, a partnership would form between Camp Guernsey, the Wyoming National Guard, the Department of Defense's Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise and the University of Wyoming. The goal behind that vision was that all agencies would benefit from the influence, funding, and resources that the other agencies could provide.

Thomas took the idea by the horns and initiated its' routing through Congress for approval. Unfortunately, Thomas was unable to see the project through to its current state as he passed away in June 2007 from complications of leukemia. However, where Thomas left off, his replacement, Sen. John Barrasso took over, and later that year the program was congressionally approved and funded.

"Sen. Thomas wanted to provide training and tools to our troops by getting war-fighting capabilities into the hands of our war fighters as quickly as possible. This program served as the perfect vehicle to deliver this goal," said Lt. Col. Dave Herder, deputy commander for Camp Guernsey.

The bill called for funding in the amount of $8 million for the Joint Robotics Program, with $4 million going to the Joint Training and Experimentation Center located in the North Training Area at Camp Guernsey, and the other $4 million going to the University of Wyoming's College of Engineering, in Laramie. In 2007 the funding for this bill was approved and disbursed as was recommended by Barrasso.

"The initial purpose of the program was the research, development, testing and evaluation of the UAS and ground robotics program. The robotics program paired Camp Guernsey with the University of Wyoming and was initially focused on de-arming explosive devices, while the UAS program was focused on developing platforms for reconnaissance and surveillance efforts," said Herder. "It is extremely advantageous to our members as it removes the human element from dangerous situations. We can now do reconnaissance and surveillance while limiting the hazards to our service members."

However, as the program was initially stood up, it was unable to avoid the trial run setbacks that are typically seen with the implementation of any new program. According to Bruce Heimbuck, town of Guernsey community development coordinator, "JTEC started on Camp Guernsey in a very limited space. The town of Guernsey worked with the program to get them additional space that was needed and in turn a positive impact was created for both entities. The town of Guernsey benefited economically as they were able to lease land while also maintaining current jobs in addition to creating new ones. The JTEC program benefited by garnering the extra space they were in need of."

However, the positive influence of the program on the town of Guernsey has not been limited to positive economic growth. The program has also provided a positive environmental impact by performing aerial missions involving photographing and videoing the landscape in order to positively impact fire mitigation efforts.

The UAS program has also helped in past fire mitigation efforts in other regions as they performed surveillance and reconnaissance missions for Sawmill Canyon which is located just a few miles southeast of Glendo, Wyo., in Platte County.

Nevertheless, the program faces a handful of obstacles due to the unique nature of flying an unmanned system. One such obstacle is that "a UAS is required to fly in restricted air space, which means we are prohibited from entering certain areas without prior permission" said John Offe, a senior electronic technician and staff scientist for JTEC. This means that each time the UAS program desires to enter a certain airspace, they must first contact the Federal Aviation Administration and get prior permission to do so, which adds time to the planning and implementation phase involved in operating the UAS.

When you compare the benefits of operating a UAS, such as the reduced operating cost and removing the possibility of injuring human life, it puts into perspective just what the program has to offer, even with the few existent downfalls.

However, the UAS is only one component of JTEC. The other component of the program is robotics, which is aimed at saving human lives by de-arming bombs utilizing the presence of technology rather than a live human being.

In 2011 the JTEC robotics program hosted the world's largest Robotic Range Clearance Competition (R2C2) which was held out at Camp Guernsey in conjunction with the Joint Ground Robotics Enterprise, Air Force Research Laboratory and the Army Corp of Engineers. The competition allowed for environmental assessments to be done on Camp Guernsey land in hopes of determining whether a UAS was capable of landing there. However, the competition far exceeded everyone's expectations as it ended up being a prime puzzle piece that assisted in the Lt. Gen. Ed Wright Tactical Airstrip coming to fruition. Outcomes from the competition yielded results which allowed engineers to conclude that the particular piece of land on which the competition was held was capable of supporting the take-off and landing of C-130 aircraft.

The reaches of the robotics program don't stop at the Camp Guernsey boundaries or the Guernsey town limits though.

"About four years ago we invested in robots for our bomb squad program," said Howard Smith, bomb squad commander for the Cheyenne Police Department. "However, as the robots proceeded to break occasionally, we realized we had no one with the ability to fix them within an acceptable distance and for an affordable cost. The JTEC robotics program offered to repair our robots and we took them up on their offer. The program received, fixed, and returned our robot within three days, and it was as good as new. The JTEC robotic program has been an a great source for all our robot needs and the personnel employed there are amazingly smart and always take care of our needs."

With all the capabilities of the program, as well as the life-saving, land-saving, and money-saving factors, it is no wonder the program has been Congressionally approved and funded year after year, as well as greatly supported in the surrounding community and state of Wyoming.

The program seems to be on the right path for a successful future.

Their current operations are focused on being selected as one of six national Federal Aviation Administration approved sites for further testing and implementation of the UAS program.

To date, there are approximately 50 applicants from 37 states who have submitted for this Federal Aviation Administration program. JTEC personnel are optimistic about the chances their program has in receiving the nod for selection based on their stellar program history, unique environment that serves to foster the programs initiatives, and the overall mission of Camp Guernsey and the Wyoming National Guard.

The JTEC ground and aerial programs allow the Wyoming National Guard, surrounding communities, and the nation the opportunity to protect numerous precious resources such as money, land, man-hours, and most importantly, lives. It truly is a one-of-a-kind program that not only functions to save what we hold precious as human beings, but also to eventually lead us into "a battle without bruises."