CAMP GUERNSEY JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Wyo. - Every day is Earth day for Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center's Integrated Training Area Management (ITAM), the team responsible for repairing and rehabilitating large acreages of land damaged by hundreds of heavy military vehicles maneuvering in more than 70,000 acres.
Much like the groundskeepers at a PGA golf course or Major League Baseball stadium are expected to keep the playing surfaces in pristine condition, ITAM plays a similar role in the training center's mission, "to provide relevant and ready maneuver space, ranges, support facilities and services in order to enable training."
The team has done well over the years to keep that promise, providing well-groomed surfaces to military units preparing for combat at Camp Guernsey. Nonetheless, they wanted to improve their performance and efficiency, even within the constraints of budget, equipment and personnel.
Finding the damaged areas has always been a challenge to ITAM teams at Army training centers across the country. With Guernsey's rolling hills and rock formations, the naked eye from ground level can be considered a handicap, at least. On top of that, determining what implements, seed or other variables are needed to fix damage adds to the difficulty of the task.
"Right now, the tractor drivers will drive around for a week or two looking for the damaged areas and circle them on a map," said Wyoming Army National Guard ITAM Coordinator Dustin Kafka. "We have a rough idea of where the units train, especially the main element, but we can't know everywhere they go."
A few years ago, the Camp Guernsey team, along with Brett Wood, ITAM Program Coordinator at National Guard Bureau, who also is a range safety specialist with the WyARNG's Training Center Command, pondered using unmanned aerial vehicles to look at training areas, and to apply practices of precision agriculture, a modern farming technique using GPS and other digital technologies. Wood also had valuable perspective gained in another Guard specialty.
"I deployed as a UAS (unmanned aerial systems) operator with the Maryland National Guard to Iraq," Wood said. "It quickly became obvious that using unmanned aircraft would allow ITAM managers at Army National Guard training sites to monitor large areas quickly. At the time, UAS were rare and expensive, so the idea I proposed was for ITAM managers to partner with UAS units training on their training sites. This never really happened, but the idea of using UAS for ITAM monitoring had been planted. Eventually, agricultural use of UAS made them cheaper and more available."
To take it a step further, Kafka and Kole Dufore, Camp Guernsey's Geographic Information System Coordinator thought they could feed global positioning data and detailed images from high resolution RGB and near-infrared cameras directly to the tractor drivers making the repairs.
"It's a great management tool," added Dufore. "We'll be able to know everything needed to execute a repair plan. They will know what implements to stage, what kind of seed and how much to bring, and how much time the rehabilitation might take."
They were granted funding for their idea.
"Camp Guernsey seemed like an ideal test case for ITAM use of UAS," Wood said. "Camp Guernsey is large, has restricted airspace, a military airfield with a tower, and is sparsely vegetated. Mr. Kafka's and Dufore's proposed use of the UAS has exceeded my original intent. Camp Guernsey's uses for the unmanned system reduces the amount of time and manpower required to monitor maneuver land. Because of this, WyARNG's monitoring protocols will likely be a template for many other ITAM programs throughout the Army."
It's been three years since Kafka and Dufore first determined the correct UAS platform compatible for Guernsey's area and got trained and a FAA operator license approval. They also learned the computer programs necessary to create the useable data they were aiming to produce.
"I don't think we had any idea how long it would take," Dufore said, "Once the FAA set guidance and rules for UAV, we were set to go."
A couple of weeks ago, the team made its first test flight over one of the training site's drop zones - a large, open field most often used for dropping troops and cargo from aircraft, but one that has sustained damage from maneuvering vehicles. It was an ideal location.
Dufore said the first flight went very well and the resulting data is what they wanted.
"We covered 132 acres in less than 10 minutes," he explained. "We had 180 individual images. Those are not so useful of themselves, but once stitched together in reconstructing geometry software, we then get surface models that we can use for our repair plan."
Even before their successful test flight, National Guard Bureau and the Pentagon invited the Guernsey team to brief their concept at last year's ITAM conference at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
"When we asked for the funding, that was the deal," Kafka said. "They asked, 'what are you going do with it?' So we told them our idea and they asked us to brief it to the other ITAMs."
"This was a fairly long and complex process, but I am confident it will be a template likely copied throughout the Army preventing other sites from having to go through this process from scratch," Wood said. "The UAS will allow Dustin to quickly and easily find maneuver damage, track the progress and success of all ITAM activities and provide imagery for documentation without the need for increased staffing and without a significant increase in funding requirements."
Kafka owes a "lessons learned" report to his ITAM colleagues sometime in the future.
"ITAM as an entity is all in it together," he said. "But we're happy to share what we think we can do."