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 2017 were actually the squadron's penultimate flight operation with the Shadow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of VMU-4’s Marines inspects the main antenna on a ground control station prior to a night-time wildlife survey mission.
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 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.