Counting Sheep: VMU-4’s Marines Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Joe Copalman reports on an interesting deployment to southern California by Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 4


As the Marine Forces Reserve’s dedicated aerial reconnaissance specialists, the ‘Evil Eyes’ of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 4 (VMU-4) are used to spending long nights at the controls of the unit’s AAI RQ-7B Shadow Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) searching for enemy combatants or signs of hostile activity. With up to nine hours of loiter time, optical and infrared sensors and a laser designator, Shadow offers a persistent eye in the sky, allowing VMU-4’s Marines to provide over watch for convoys or infantry patrols moving through hostile territory, gather pattern-of-life intelligence on suspected enemy compounds, or detect, track and, if necessary, target enemy vehicles or personnel for airstrikes or artillery fires. On the weekend of August 18–20, 2017, however, the ‘Evil Eyes’ put the Shadow to work against an entirely different kind of target.

A typical RQ-7B crew consists of an air vehicle operator (left) who flies the aircraft, a mission payload operator (right) who operates the sensors and communications payloads, and an unmanned aircraft commander (UAC, not pictured), an officer in a nearby command centre. The UAC is often accompanied by an intelligence specialist assigned to the squadron. On this flight, the UAC was accompanied by game wardens and wildlife biologists. Instructors often sit in on RQ-7B flights, which is the case with the Marine pictured at far left in this image.
VMU-4 is the last operator of the AAI RQ-7B Shadow UAS in the US Marine Corps, and will begin transitioning to the Boeing-Insitu RQ-21A Blackjack early next year. The wildlife survey missions flown in August were actually the squadron’s penultimate flight operation with the Shadow.

Situated on over 125,000 acres (506km2) of land on the California coast north of San Diego, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton is the largest tract of undeveloped land in coastal Southern California and home to some of the most varied biodiversity in the region. Camp Pendleton Game Wardens (CPGW) are responsible for managing everything to do with the base’s wildlife, from overseeing the protection of the 18 threatened or endangered species that call Camp Pendleton home to regulating the hunting and fishing that occurs on base.

One of the tasks that falls on CPGW is keeping tabs on Camp Pendleton’s robust population of southern mule deer. Gunnery Sergeant Bill Franceschini, an active-duty RQ-7B operator and VMU-4’s operations chief explained the purpose of these surveys: “They’re looking at the status of the herds to figure out if they’re breeding correctly based on the numbers and the dispositions of where the herds are, as that allows the game wardens to determine where to place food plots, and for things like hunting season, which is coming up soon. Based on the count, the wardens can either place restrictions on hunting, or tell the hunters to go in certain areas because of overpopulation.”

A safer approach

Historically, deer surveys on Camp Pendleton have been done using civilian helicopters contracted by CPGW for a low-altitude aerial survey. That has been a fairly effective method of counting the deer, but it also carries some significant risks. Camp Pendleton Game Warden and wildlife biologist Michael Tucker experienced first hand the potential hazards of this approach. He told AIR International: “Previously we used the technique of a low-elevation helicopter survey. I was on a survey flight last November when we struck a powerline, and we realised that that wasn’t a safe way to do things. Everyone survived the incident, but we don’t want to do that anymore.”

The idea for using VMU-4’s RQ-7s for the deer survey started in Camp Pendleton’s contracting office, where Franceschini’s wife works and had heard about CPGW’s quandary now that helicopter surveys were off the table. When she brought up the idea with Franceschini – himself an avid hunter – he was extremely enthusiastic about it. The idea gained traction as VMU-4 met with CPGW to discuss the RQ-7’s capabilities and how they can meet the game wardens’ needs. On paper, the Shadow offered several advantages over the helicopter, aside from just increased safety. As Franceschini explained, “If they’re in the helicopter, they’ll say, ‘Okay, I’m kind of here-ish on the map, and I see deer over there, so he’s probably here on the map.’ However, from the sensor on the Shadow, we can say exactly where that deer was. In the helicopter, they’d be writing that down. Meanwhile, every time I drop a target mark, it records it into a graphic user interface and they can then plot them all on a map.”

The Shadow’s primary payload is the IAI POP300 electro-optical/ infrared sensor turret, equipped with a laser designator. The POP300 can generate ten-digit target coordinates, precise enough for GPS-guided weapons, but also useful for other functions, like pinpointing where a southern mule deer was spotted.
This image shows to good effect the type of terrain VMU-4 has to contend with while operating out of the HOLF. While undeniably scenic, Camp Pendleton’s large hills force the RQ-7B to higher altitudes to maintain electronic line-of-sight with the ground control station. In the foreground are two of VMU-4’s ground control station vehicles. The GCS is effectively the ‘cockpit’ of the RQ-7.

Game Warden Mike Tucker expressed similar enthusiasm for the potential advantages of the RQ-7, telling AIR International: “When we have this opportunity to work with the Marines with their UAV technology that can do things safer, I think this is a good use of our time; and we benefit from that because there’s no cost to us, so there’s no taxpayer dollars paying for an aircraft that is maybe unsafe to operate in the lower elevations here.

“The infrared imagery is a game-changer for us, because we can look for animals at night. With the low-elevation helicopter surveys, it’s hard to see the deer when they’re standing still. We need to really see them when they’re moving, because that’s what catches our eye. With the infrared technology, we can see them when they’re holding still and get more realistic counts.”

For the Marines of VMU-4, the wildlife survey mission was not just an opportunity to help out the base’s game wardens, but also a unique training opportunity. Franceschini said: “In this day and age, we’re flying a lot of notional missions, where we have a notional enemy. Most of the time when we support the ground combat element at Camp Pendleton, it’s against a notional enemy, unless of course we have role players, but then that gets into spending a lot of money. At ITX [Integrated Training Exercise at Twentynine Palms, California], we’d be lucky to find a piece of metal out there that’s been baking in the sun all day.” The wildlife survey mission gave VMU-4 the opportunity to train against live heat signatures that provide the kinds of contrast through the sensors that the RQ-7B operators would see in real-world missions. The task of searching for elusive targets over broad areas of wilderness created a further training challenge for VMU-4’s Shadow operators.

The Deer Hunters

The purpose of these initial flights was not necessarily to make official deer population counts with the RQ-7B, but rather to test the suitability of UAVs to the wildlife survey mission, to validate the concept and to establish a framework for standard operating procedures. As CPGW’s Tucker explained: “Really, this year isn’t so much about counting the animals here, it’s about finding the method that is going to work for us in the future. We’re learning by experience because there isn’t a manual for this right now.” In addition to just getting a first glimpse at what the RQ-7’s sensors are capable of producing, Tucker (as well as a visiting wildlife biologist from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is also expressing an interest in using UAS for aerial survey work) was also interested in evaluating the manual and automated search functions of the RQ-7’s sensors.

The main objective for the first flight was to locate a bison herd in an area of known bison activity simply to verify whether the RQ-7 could find and observe wildlife at resolutions good enough to make positive identification of what type of animal is being observed and get an accurate count. While the Shadow operators were successful in finding a herd of bison, it was in an area on the far eastern edge of Camp Pendleton, a significant distance away from the Helicopter Outlying Landing Field (HOLF) VMU-4 was operating from. With the mountainous terrain surrounding the HOLF, electronic line-ofsight – necessary for maintaining the datalink between an RQ-7 and its ground control station – can be difficult to manage at longer distances, and on this flight, both distance and terrain conspired to keep the RQ-7 at an altitude that did not provide a level of resolution that satisfied the game wardens. The bison on the mission payload operator’s screen showed as large heat signatures clustered near some oak trees, and while it could be inferred that those signatures were indeed bison, there were concerns that with deer being significantly smaller, the resolution needed to identify individual heat signatures as deer might not be there.

The second survey flight of the weekend was cancelled when clouds moved into the area almost immediately after the RQ-7B for this mission was launched. Looking at the mission payload operator’s screen, it is clear just how thoroughly these clouds obscure the ground.
A ‘short-wing’ RQ-7B awaits assembly at the HOLF. With six hours endurance and Camp Pendleton’s ranges only a short flight away, VMU-4 typically opts for the short-winged Shadows for local missions, versus the long-winged variant, which offers nine hours endurance. Capabilities between the two are the same, only the long-wing RQ-7 takes longer to defuel after shorter missions.

On the second night, the wardens and the RQ-7 operators agreed on an area very close to the HOLF to survey for deer. With terrain and distance no longer an issue, the Shadow could be flown at lower altitudes, improving the resolution of the sensors, and hopefully giving the game wardens the ability to positively identify heat signatures as deer. Unfortunately, this flight was not able to accomplish its objectives, as low-hanging clouds moved in on the area almost immediately after the Shadow was launched, obscuring the sensor’s view of the ground and forcing an early recovery at the HOLF. The inability of either flight to locate deer did not mean that Camp Pendleton’s deer were not being counted. Along with the planned aerial work, CPGW were employing other survey methods such as passive trail cameras and faecal DNA plotting, in which deer droppings are collected with the locations logged and analysed to track the movement and numbers of individual deer. Both are methods CPGW intends to continue using while further evaluations of UAS suitability for aerial surveys are conducted.

Making tracks

Despite the frustrations of this first attempt to use UAS to survey wildlife populations, Tucker remains optimistic about working with VMU-4 on future surveys, and with good cause. The Marine VMU community is currently going through a transition from the legacy RQ-7B to the newer Boeing-Insitu RQ-21 Blackjack, with VMU-4, as the reserve VMU, being the last squadron to make the transition. The ‘Evil Eyes’ will make their final RQ-7B flights in December while supporting exercise ‘Steel Knight’ at Twentynine Palms and begin converting to the Blackjack in early 2018. While Blackjack has some of the same limitations as Shadow, namely electronic-lineof- sight control, one of its main advantages with regard to the wildlife survey mission is that it is not runway dependent. Like the RQ-7, the RQ-21 is launched from a portable launcher, but requires a semi-improved, graded surface like a runway to land. The RQ- 21 relies on the same ‘Skyhook’ system the Boeing-Insitu Scan Eagle used for recoveries, meaning that instead of having to operate out of the HOLF at the far northwest corner of the base, VMU-4 can establish an operating location on higher ground toward the centre of Camp Pendleton, allowing the Blackjack to get lower for animal identification without risking signal interruption. The game wardens are also looking forward to seeing what kind of resolution the Blackjack’s improved camera offers over that of the Shadow.

One of VMU-4’s Marines inspects the main antenna on a ground control station prior to a night-time wildlife survey mission.

Ultimately, the survey job might end up being a better fit for the Marine Corps’ planned Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) UAS. While several proposals are being made, the goal is to have an expeditionary, non-runway-dependent UAS controlled via satellite uplink, with the endurance, high-resolution cameras and armament capabilities of the Air Force’s General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. As currently proposed, the MALE would solve two of the biggest problems faced by the RQ-7 (and, presumably, the RQ-21): it would eliminate the potential for terraininduced signal disruptions and its more robust sensors would have the resolution to make better identifications. Until then, CPGW remains committed to working with the Marines of VMU-4 to validate the use of UAS for aerial wildlife survey work and to develop the tactics, techniques, and procedures for employing the RQ-21 for this type of mission.

Marines inspect an RQ-7 launcher prior to sending a Shadow up on a wildlife survey mission. Most of VMU-4’s Marines are reservists, and the wildlife survey flights were scheduled for one of the squadron’s monthly drill weekends.


VMU-4 is the only UAS squadron in the US Marine Corp’s reserve component, and the only VMU with a pedigree going back to a manned squadron. The ‘Evil Eyes’ trace their history to World War Two, when the squadron was established as a Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) flying the Stinson OY-1 Sentinel in the aerial reconnaissance and artillery/naval gunfire spotting roles, a mission nearly identical to that with which VMU-4 is tasked today. After the war, VMO-4 was deactivated and then reactivated as a US Marine Corps Reserve squadron at NAS Grosse Ile, Michigan, in 1962. The squadron flew the Sikorsky H-34 until 1968, when it re-equipped with the North American OV-10A Bronco, adding forward air control to the squadron’s aerial observation and artillery adjustment portfolio. The squadron, which relocated from Michigan to Atlanta, Georgia, in 1976, flew the OV-10 until it was deactivated in 1994 as the last Bronco operator in the Marine Corps. In 2010, VMU-4 reactivated at MCAS Yuma, equipped with the AAI RQ-7B Shadow UAS. Assigned to Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Air Wing, VMU-4 is manned mostly by reservists, Marines who drill once a month and then attend a two-week annual training period every summer. A small cadre of active-duty Marines comprise the instructor and inspector (I&I staff). In addition to managing the day-to-day operations of the squadron between drills, the I&I staff also ensure that the training requirements for each individual reservist are met throughout the year. As a reserve squadron, VMU-4 is not on the same deployment rotation as the three active component VMUs. While still deployable, VMU-4 is effectively the Marine Corps’ go-to UAS squadron for exercise support. While VMU-1, 2 and 3 still support exercises, especially as part of their own pre-deployment work-ups, VMU-4 allows the active VMUs to focus on their own training and readiness syllabuses by supplying aircraft and marines when other ground and air units need live UAS to train with in order to meet their predeployment training goals. Gunnery Sergeant Bill Franceschini gave some insight into these kinds of missions, explaining how after flying the wildlife survey flights on the squadron’s drill weekend, it was spending the following week supporting the 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (3rd ANGLICO) on a combat readiness exercise (CRE). He told AIR International: “We’re supporting ANGLICO in their CRE, so we can pretty much ensure that they’re going to know how to talk to and utilise UAS when they go out.” Initially scheduled to upgrade from the baseline RQ-7B to the RQ-7Bv2 with an improved engine and more robust datalink, VMU-4 is instead following the active component VMUs by converting to the Boeing-Insitu RQ- 21A Blackjack. With greater endurance, better sensors and a much quieter engine than the RQ-7, the Blackjack will allow the ‘Evil Eyes’ to provide even better support to the Marines on the ground.