Eye in the sky has saved countless lives

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Cruising through the air thousands of feet above Afghanistan, this unmanned aircraft looks more like a bird than a plane.

At such a high altitude, it makes little noise, and is, as a result, quite difficult to spot.

Members of the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) Battery (left to right)  L/Bdr Matt Hooper, L/Bdr Daniel Morgan, Capt  Steve Hayzen-Smith, Cpl Abba Sillah, L/Bdr Daniel Archer, and Bdr Marc Cook'' Picture: Sergeant Dan Bardsley RLC (Phot)

Members of the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) Battery (left to right) L/Bdr Matt Hooper, L/Bdr Daniel Morgan, Capt Steve Hayzen-Smith, Cpl Abba Sillah, L/Bdr Daniel Archer, and Bdr Marc Cook'' Picture: Sergeant Dan Bardsley RLC (Phot)

Miles away, behind the wire in Camp Bastion, soldiers sit in air conditioned pods controlling the machine with a joystick, while intelligence analysts next door use its on board camera to look for suspicious activity.

This is one of several unmanned aerial vehicles used to keep tabs on the Taliban, and they are providing a vital source of information in the fight against insurgents.

Now, it’s the turn of Thorney Island-based 47 Regiment Royal Artillery to operate the aircraft from Camp Bastion.

The soldiers operate three main types of aircraft, which are flown over enemy positions to provide troops and commanders with an eye in the sky over Afghanistan.

As they cruise over the land, cameras mounted on the machines feed back live images to intelligence analysts behind the wire of Bastion.

They then pass the pictures on to military commanders, who decide what to do with the information.

Crucially, the machines are not armed in any way.

Their job is to carry out reconnaissance only and report the images back.

The soldiers of 47 Regiment Royal Artillery are one of only two regiments in the Royal Artillery who act as the Army’s eyes in the sky over the war zone.

The other is 32 Regiment Royal Artillery, based in Larkhill, Wiltshire.

Captain Steve Hayzen-Smith, 42, from Fareham, told The News: ‘There is a lot of experience here in what we do.

‘There are only two regiments like us in the country and because of that we have got a lot of guys who have been here a lot of times before.

‘This tour has been different from the others.

‘We have noticed stability in a lot of areas, with the Afghan police taking the lead in a lot of places, which has reduced our workload.

‘This is definitely a job where people finish up at the end of the day and think: “Yes, we have made a difference”.’

The Hermes aircraft recently marked a significant milestone in its operation by the Army.

They have completed more than 70,000 hours of surveillance support in Afghanistan — the equivalent of eight years non-stop flying.

UK forces working in Camp Bastion have clocked up more hours on the machines than any other nation.

The technology has saved countless lives in Afghanistan, including those of UK troops, Afghan security forces, and innocent civilians who might have otherwise become caught in the aftermath of a missile strike.

Capt Hayzen-Smith adds: ‘Preventing collateral damage is something these UAVs do very well.

‘We can see things from up above which people on the ground may not have the ability to see.

‘It’s all about providing that bigger picture.’

The Crew

Corporal Abba Sillah, 30, from Thorney Island, said:

‘It has been a good deployment.

‘My job is to sort out pay and personnel issues and I’m the only one doing that so I have a bit of a different role.

‘Although it sounds strange to say it, I have enjoyed it although of course you do miss being at home.’

Lance Bombardier Matthew Hooper, 23, from Emsworth, said:

‘The challenge is to make sure all the repairs and maintenance goes well on the UAVs to make sure we are able to operate them at all times.

‘I’ve found it to be a really good deployment, and obviously we’ve had some challenging times.

‘I just wanted to get out here and do the deployment.’

Lance Bombardier Daniel Morgan, 26, from Gosport, said:

‘Being out here this time is a lot different to the last time I was here.

‘I was here for Herrick 16 [2012] when we were firing much more often.

‘I’m a Hermes pilot and it’s a rewarding job.

‘For example, we not long ago spotted an improvised explosive device on one of the routes so the guys could miss it.

‘What we’re doing more of now it’s watching the Afghan forces doing their work, so it’s more about them taking control now.

‘Having said that, I think we will be one of the last to leave the base because of the important job we do.’

Bombardier Marc Cook, 26, from Hastings, said:

‘It has been a good deployment so far, and much different to the last time we were out here.

‘Last time, we were pushed out into forward operating bases whereas this time that’s less common.

‘Last time we were in the thick of it and now it’s more quiet.

‘We’re still doing an important job, we just do it in a different way.’

Lance Bombardier Daniel Archer, 26, from Worcester, said:

‘I’m in the Territorial Army so this has been a completely new experience for me.

‘It has been a good deployment, but obviously there are high points and low points and times which go by slowly.

‘I’m a mechanic back home but I wanted to do something a bit different.

‘The time has flown by and it has been a great experience.’

The Kit

Hermes 450

The Hermes aircraft is runway-launched and can fly for up to 14 hours more than 150km away from its base station.

The aircraft have a wingspan of 30ft and are worth around £1.5m each.

They are used around the clock to provide the all important eyes in the sky over Afghanistan.

The machines are on loan from Israel, and controlled from a flight suite built into a shipping container in Bastion.

A replacement for the Hermes system is currently being produced by in the UK by defence firm Thales.

Tarantula-Hawk Mini Unmanned Air System

The Tarantula-Hawk aircraft does not look like something you think would fly.

But the small machine takes off vertically and has the important job of examining possible Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) to keep troops safe on the ground.

It hovers over areas using rotary blades and can get close-range images of the ground, providing an instant picture of any dangers which might lie ahead of ground troops.

Desert Hawk

It looks a bit like a model plane, but this is actually a light and nimble aircraft which plays a vital surveillance role in Afghanistan.

The polystyrene machine is thrown into the air and flown over enemy positions to provide soldiers with a view of what’s on the ground.

It has a camera guided by an Xbox games console controller and feeds live footage back for any signs of insurgents or roadside bombs.

Its light construction and small size means these machines can be deployed anywhere where an aerial picture is required.