FLYING THE SEABIRDSMeet the first batch of NSFs trained on the Navy's ScanEagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), in the last of our series on lesser-known National Service (NS) vocations.
Story // Ong Hong Tat
Photos // Chai Sian Liang
The level of care and attention given to their winged charges is akin to what hobbyist bird keepers lavish on their feathered friends.
The difference? This group of Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) from the Republic of Singapore Navy's (RSN's) 188 Squadron take care of the metal-clad, high-tech ScanEagle UAVs.
Flying miles ahead of their mothership, the ScanEagle UAV provides a live video feed to augment the MCV's maritime surveillance capabilities. This 20kg drone with a wingspan of just over 3m can fly at speeds of about 100kmh.
A tug of the launch cable and the ScanEagle UAV is flung into the air by a crossbow-like contraption. Sitting on the MCV aft-deck, this launcher system allows the drone to gain the velocity needed for flight without a runway.
"The first time we did it, it took us more than two hours!" said 3rd Sergeant (3SG) Gabriel Teo. After about a year on the job, the 19-year-old is now a deft hand at the set-up and preparations.
Learning to do their job takes three months, said Military Expert (ME) 2 Ricky Tan. He is one of the UAV Cluster Chiefs assigned to the three UAV-equipped MCVs.
Luckily for them, there was a major overseas exercise going on at the same time. They ended up sailing for five weeks on RSS Vigour for Exercise Kakadu last year, observing and learning from their seniors who were all experienced Regular sailors.
"All the hands-on training really helped -- we got to apply what we read in the manuals," said 3SG Isaiah Zhuang who is assigned to RSS Valiant.
Out in the open sea, setting up the system for launch and recovery becomes harder when the weather gets bad. The drone is usually packed away in a canister and the wings have to be fixed on before it is carried to the 2m-high launch position. Besides that, the NSFs handle the fuelling of the UAV.
It was also during that sail that they got to see the true utility of the ScanEagle UAV system. "With the live video, it's easy to spot a potential threat hiding in a merchant convoy or even if an enemy warship is masking its presence by sailing close to another ship," said 3SG Gabriel.
While a pilot controls the flying of the UAV, the co-pilot operates the camera. With six display panels to look at, the duo have their hands full. The panels display a multitude of data, from system health to flight parameters as well as the video feed coming in from the camera.
"With the live video, it's easy to spot a potential threat hiding in a merchant convoy or even if an enemy warship is masking its presence by sailing close to another ship."