Eye in the sky: SUAS program takes flight at Dover AFB

  • Published
  • By Roland Balik
  • 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

A Skydio X2D Small Unmanned Aerial System drone was tested during its first operational flight around a static aircraft at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Nov. 4, 2022.

The 436th Airlift Wing Plans and Programs office and the Bedrock Innovation Lab jointly run the wing’s SUAS program. The program provides safe and effective integration of SUAS capabilities at Dover AFB in order to support a variety of mission sets, to include aircraft maintenance inspections, counter-SUAS, airfield inspections, and Agile Combat Employment - Tactics Techniques and Procedures development.

This particular SUAS model was selected from other Department of Defense approved systems due to its advanced obstacle avoidance system and other possible capabilities.

“After two years of work and effort, Dover AFB’s SUAS program was able to get an AAA (Airspace Access Approval) from Air Force Special Operations Command for the Skydio platform,” said 1st Lt. Soraya Peron, 436th Operations Support Squadron chief of collaboration and partnership.

On Sept. 26, 2022, the Skydio X2D took its first flight around the baseball field on base to test the pre- and post-flight mechanisms, as well as Dover AFB’s Air Traffic Control flows of communication.

“We are one of the first concurrent SUAS-Counter-SUAS programs developed Air Force-wide, and one of the most advanced programs in Air Mobility Command,” said Lt. Col. Raul Cantaulla, 436th Airlift Wing chief of Wing Plans and Programs and Advanced Programs. “The development and successful integration of this program will provide a blueprint for utility SUAS use in AMC.”

With future testing on tap, some of the Skydio’s capabilities being looked at include Forward Looking InfraRed (FLIR) thermal imaging, 3-D scanning and workflow automation.

“The future vision of the SUAS program is [to be] an easily usable program across a variety of mission sets, hopefully cutting man hours and achieving mission results faster, safer, and more efficiently,” said Cantualla.

For this latest test flight, Ken Jones, 436th Mission Generation Group continuous process improvement manager, flew the drone around a static KC-10 Extender parked near the AMC Museum.

“The test flight served as a proof of concept for the ability to clearly see potential defects on the aircraft surfaces without having to get close to the aircraft,” said Jones. “This was done using a 16 times digital zoom on the 4K camera and with the installed thermal camera, which will be useful in finding potential pressure seal leaks on operational aircraft.”

Jones serves as the Wing's Small Unmanned Aircraft System Instructor (SUAS-I) and is responsible for all Dover AFB [drone] pilot training.

“There are no special skills required to fly a drone. Anyone who has played a video game more than 10 minutes can pick up a drone, read the power-up instructions and fly it," said Jones. "To be a Department of Defense drone operator, you must complete the online ‘Basic User Qualification’ (BUQ) training, receive system specific training, and local procedural and regulatory training."

Additionally, coordination with numerous base agencies and having a visual observer present is essential when flying a drone in restricted air space on and around Dover AFB.

Jones stated, "There are Federal Aviation Administration rules now that require training for even the hobbyist to legally fly a drone over 250 grams in weight. Anyone using a drone in a way that could potentially result in financial gain must complete the commercial pilot ‘FAA Part -107’ certification."

Dover’s SUAS program touches on Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown's top priorities and Action Orders driving Accelerate, Change or Lose.

“This program specifically addresses Gen. Brown’s push for modernization and innovation using industry teammates – by developing a program to increase the effectiveness of mission execution, while cutting man hours and keeping Airmen safe, we are pushing towards accelerating change at the local level,” said Peron. “Additionally, since any rank Airmen can be a SUAS pilot, trained and capable to execute their given mission set using the SUAS, this specifically highlights the utility of empowered Airmen.”

Team Dover’s SUAS program is rapidly advancing and is currently seeking new applications. Anyone interested in joining the SUAS working group or becoming a trained pilot, contact 1st Lt. Peron at the Bedrock Innovation Lab.