IT MAY look like a model plane, but the aircraft in the hands of these soldiers is playing a vital role in fighting the Taliban.
The £400,000 polystyrene Desert Hawk drone is thrown into the air and flown over enemy positions to provide front-line soldiers with an eye in the sky over Afghanistan.
As it cruises over the compounds and roads ahead, the drone – which has a camera guided by an Xbox games console controller – feeds live footage back to soldiers who view iPad-style tablets for signs of insurgents or roadside bombs.
The technology, which has saved countless lives in Helmand, is one of three types of unmanned aircraft controlled by troops from 10 battery 47th Regiment Royal Artillery.
Many of the 200 Thorney Island-based gunners and bombardiers joined the army to shoot aircraft out of the sky. But in these hi-tech, modern times they find themselves flying the surveillance planes which have become a key tool in taking on the Taliban in Helmand.
Bombardier Luke Martin, 23, of Havant, leads a three-man Desert Hawk team out on the ground and was recently involved in an operation in a hostile area.
He said: ‘The boys were conducting patrols and we were flying over them to let them know if there’s any threats in the area. We are tracking what the enemy is doing – they might think they are being quiet but we are flying over them to confirm they are there.
‘It’s a brilliant asset. We can turn up at a position, set up in five or 10 minutes and be in the sky over an area as soon as the soldiers need it.’
But the close-range Desert Hawk is just one component of 47th’s surveillance role.
Back in Camp Bastion, the largest drones, Hermes 450s, which have a wingspan of 30ft and are worth £1.5m each, provide around-the-clock long-range aerial cover.
The drones, which are on loan from Israel, are controlled from a flight suite built into a shipping container in Bastion.
Hermes operator Sergeant Andrew Alexander, 29, who lives on Thorney Island, said: ‘We work eight-hour shifts. It’s a long time to be in a box in front of a computer.
‘It can be hard work but when you find something like a possible IED, it’s a great feeling.
‘You stop one of the guys or a local who’s going to stand on it and find out the hard way.’
The battery also uses a new T-Hawk drone which hovers over areas like a UFO using rotary blades. It was referred to as ‘dusty bin’ by one of the troops but its job is far from rubbish.
Worth £50,000 and weighing just over a stone, it’s set up on the ground and hovers a few hundred feet above a location to get close-range images. It has been used by Lance Bombardier Edward Bradley, 22, of Havant, on attachment to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Search Task Force, which disarms roadside bombs.
He said: ‘It’s my job to get ahead of the ground troops and see signs of a possible device. It’s quick for me to search an area and it’s really effective at spotting any dangers.’
Used in combination, the three types of surveillance aircraft provide front-line commanders with up-to-the-minute intelligence of what lies ahead.
All the live footage is sent back to an operations room in Bastion to be analysed by experts from 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery – a sister regiment of the Thorney Island troops – who pass on information to the ground forces.
Lance Corporal Jamie Perkins, 24, from Lee-on-the-Solent, of 32nd regiment, said: ‘It’s important. It gives the guys on the ground a lot of reassurance there is something watching over them. It gives them peace of mind.’
Major Tim Ventham, 38, the commanding officer of 10 battery 47th regiment, said: ‘What we’re doing out here is a real departure for the battery. But it’s a really critical job our people are doing. The campaign in Helmand couldn’t be done without it.’