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Geospatial exercise combines Academy cadets with crime fighting

Geospatial science exercise

From left: Cadet 2nd Class Frederick Heidt (seated), Cadet 1st Class Patrick Gabriel and Cadet 2nd Class Pareena Patel were among 50 cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy to participate in a two-month exercise hosted by the Academy’s geospatial science department. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – An extensive counterdrug operation at the Air Force Academy netted a substantial crop of Marijuana stashed in the school’s main field training area.

The two-month crackdown, involving cadets, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Forest Service and faculty members, ended Oct. 30 with the shutdown of several Marijuana grow-sites hidden in Jack’s Valley.  

This operation was an exercise, of course, hosted by the Academy’s geospatial science department. Those grow sites are pure fiction but while illegal drugs are banned at the Academy and all other federal installations, the skills Academy cadets are developing to assist those agencies are real. 

The Exercise
More than 50 cadets including Cadets 1st Class Charles Galloway, Wolf Lucas and Austin Williams, combined satellite and drone imagery with other intelligence to locate and identify the fake grow sites.

Galloway said a team of remotely piloted aircraft pilots and unmanned aerial vehicles pilots collected information while flying above Jack’s Valley.  

“The first team of RPA and UAV pilots assessed the area from above through pictures and video and sent the data to the second team,” he said. “The second team consisted of analysts who looked at the data and determined where any possible grow sites were located.”

Galloway was one of those analysts.

“We all wanted to be correct in our assessments of the grow sites but at the same time we didn’t want to lose credibility by falsely identifying an operation,” he said.

Lt. Col. Gene Richter, deputy director of the school’s geospatial science program, said the cadets analyzed videos, photos and other geospatial information and gave their assessments of the information to NGA intelligence analysts involved in the exercise for “validation and exploitation.”

The majority of the exercise took place online, with the cadets working from their computers instead of in the field or in a classroom.

“The biggest challenge for our team was doing this remotely,” Lucas said. “In the past, we’ve always been able to meet up in person to work on these projects.”

Williams was the command pilot and a team leader during the exercise. He said the weather conditions sometimes put a damper on flying operations.

“We ended up flying with 15-to-20 knot winds on both flight days which made our camera unstable,” he said. “We corrected for adverse weather by altering our flight plan to include maneuvers that reduced the effect of the wind such as ‘crabbing’ and flying either with or against the wind as much as possible

“Crabbing” is using wind to maintain an aircraft’s stability and direction, Williams said.

“For example, if there’s a wind out of the north and I want to fly east – if I were to put the nose of the aircraft directly east, the northern wind would push me south,” he said.    

The Academy’s geospatial science course allows cadets to apply their air and space based imagery collection skills to address national intelligence and security concerns, Richter said. 

“The two-month exercise, designed by a team from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Forest Service and Academy faculty demonstrated collaboration on a level never seen before in a course of this kind at the Academy,” he said. “It also served as proof of concept for future air, space and cyber – all domain – exercise initiatives under development at the Academy.”

Christopher Wolfe, director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency’s Support Team for North American Aerospace Defense Command and  U.S. Northern Command, ended the exercise with a briefing to cadets and faculty.

“He discussed the importance of the mission cadets simulated to the ‘real world’ agencies and the valuable data we’re able to provide different agencies across the country,” Williams said.