USAFA cadets take part in Black Dart, largest UAS exercise in U.S.

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Cadets from the Air Force Academy participated in Black Dart, the nation’s largest annual counter unmanned-aircraft-systems exercise, in September at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Indiana.

The Defense Department has hosted the exercise since 2004 to test the capabilities of DOD and civilian companies as commercial UAS have become easier to own and use.

“We had a dedicated class during the spring academic year that allowed us to learn to build and fly the different [UAS] platforms,” said Cadet 1st Class Brett Bixler. “After the class ended, we often trained on the weekends as a team. Because of this extensive training, we were prepared for the challenges we encountered at Black Dart.”

Lt. Col. Nicholas Hardman, research director at the Academy’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, said the center pushes cadets and faculty to develop systems able to deliver lethal capabilities to the operational Air Force.

“The cadets really identified with the mission and internalized what our role in the exercise was,” he said. “They flew more than 400 missions to test the DOD’s ability to discriminate, identify and negate UAVs, and they did great.”

Hardman said the cadet team was the primary provider of “Red Air” -- aircraft sorties used to evaluate the numerous systems being tested. Several hundred people from dozens of DOD organizations and civilian companies participated in Black Dart.

“This exercise is quite possibly the one event in my cadet career that has best prepared me to be an officer,” said Cadet 1st Class Bailey Little. “As the Red Air mission commander, I was directly in charge of two teams of phenomenal enlisted airmen. They were experts at their job -- they showed me a glimpse of the responsibilities I will have in the future and helped me to prepare for that.”

Cadets used custom-built remotely piloted aircraft from the Academy, ranging from nearly six-feet-long to small enough to fit in an adult’s hand.

“We operated two platforms during the exercise: mini quad-copters and fixed wing aircraft,” Bixler said. “These platforms were able to fly autonomous missions over the enemy defenses. In addition, they could fly coordinated missions.”

Bixler said he was thankful for the opportunity to participate in Black Dart.

“This was great practice and gave me an insight into what to expect as an officer in the Air Force,” he said.