The Phoenix flies by night

PODUJEVA, Jun 30, 2000 -- (Reuters) In a darkened truck on a hillside in Kosovo, four men are studying a television screen. The picture is an aerial view in black-and-white, and it displays what are clearly a truck and a car maneuvering into a farmyard.

On command from a computer keyboard, a thermal imaging camera slung beneath a pilotless plane miles away in the night zooms in, showing the scene from a different angle

"Seems to be ok," says the officer in charge. "Perhaps a breakdown. Nothing suspicious."

The truck is the ground control station of a British army aerial surveillance system being used in Kosovo to prevent border infiltration and illegal activity of all kinds, especially the planting of mines which are still creating a steady toll of victims a year after inter-ethnic fighting ended.

The center of the system is the Phoenix, a multi-million pound mobile unit that needs a crew of three dozen and trucks, cranes, and computers with cables snaking everywhere.

The Phoenix is a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) with a five-meter (16-foot) wingspan and a 350-cc two-stroke engine that carries beneath it an oblong pod with the thermal imaging camera which sees with astonishing clarity in the dark.

Ranging over Kosovo by night at a height of only 700 meters (2,297 feet), nothing escapes it, and the four man crew in the truck can tell what to look for by experience that has almost become instinct.

"Suspiciously acting people moving around in locations late at night where you would not normally expect that activity," says Major Sebastian Heath, commander of 22 Battery, Royal Artillery, which flies the Phoenix. "People driving up to vehicle control points and turning around and going away. Illegal border activity. All that kind of thing."

If the plane's night-penetrating eye sees something its controllers don't like, they alert the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) headquarters in Pristina, which can dispatch ground troops to the pinpointed location in minutes.


"This is the only tactical UAV unit in theatre," says Heath. "And its worth from an intelligence point of view is second to none."

Captain Neil Ashford, from Keighley in Yorkshire in northern England, is in day to day charge of keeping the Phoenix flying. In all there are 136 members of his team, and 35 of them are in the field tonight to get just one plane into the air.

Transported in boxes and assembled on site, the UAVs are hoisted onto their launch rails, pointing diagonally into the sky on the back of 14-tonne trucks. Local children from the nearby farms look on fascinated at the grown-ups' toys.

The battery has 27 planes in its armory, and the team always sets up two of them, side by side, in case one has problems. But tonight, to their embarrassment, both give trouble - the motor of one is running roughly and the other refuses to establish a data link.

Ashford gives rapid orders, and without removing the UAVs from their rails, the crews shift the good motor onto the plane with the good software. The motor is housed in a neat module - a half-meter cube with a polished wooden two-bladed propeller at one end, the only old-fashioned touch in the whole setup - and it is removed and reattached with ease.

The changeover takes just 15 minutes; then the engine starts, spreading the burnt smell of two-stroke oil across the field, and runs up to full power with a buzz like one of those three-wheeled delivery vans that ply the streets of Italy.

Final checks, a countdown conducted with no less seriousness than Cape Canaveral, and the Phoenix leaps into the air and heads off towards the wooded hills. In the purple haze of dusk it curves left, rapidly becomes a silhouette and disappears, leaving only a trail of noise echoing behind it.

One kilometer away, the ground control vehicle confirms it has acquired the UAV and will control it on its four-hour mission.


"The noise doesn't matter," says Heath. "Even if the criminal element hear it they can't see the UAV in the dark, and they don't know whether we are looking at them. And whether they stay still or run for it, we can still see them and direct ground forces to them."

The images sent back by the plane are taped continuously and will be reviewed later by intelligence experts. Stills are made of anything meriting further study.

At the end of its mission the Phoenix, which has no landing gear, will come obediently back to base, its engine will stop, a parachute and an airbag will deploy and it will land upside down to protect its precious pod. As everything is modular, any unit that suffers damage can be replaced in minutes.

"Everything is a compromise," says Heath. "If it had wheels we would need a runway, which reduces mobility, and crews would need to learn how to land it. We can't operate in winter because the wings ice up, but if we had anti-icing that would add weight, so we would need a bigger engine and more fuel and cost and complexity. A vicious circle."

Ashford is already looking forward to the next generation - not Phoenix 2 but a whole new concept.

"The trouble with Phoenix," he says "is that it was developed to look for Russian tanks advancing across Germany and we are using it to look for people setting mines on farm tracks in Kosovo.

"What we need is color images, the ability to read number plates from a kilometer away at night.

"The technology exists, but it's a question of getting it into theatre now, when we need it.

"All the computer power we have in the ground control station, loaded onto a four-tonne truck, you could get into a laptop now.

"This is a 1970s concept, developed in the 80s, put in service in the 90s and here in theatre in the millennium.

"But it's proved its usefulness to a modern army: in two decades we'll be looking back and we'll be proud that we were in at the start.

"This is a growth industry."

Original article