One of the gravest dangers to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade has been improvised explosive devices. Two-thirds of all casualties in Iraq have been caused by the crudely made bombs, Pentagon data show. The story is largely the same in Afghanistan, where IED attacks accounted for 61 percent of all reported casualties through the end of last month.
That works out to nearly 3,200 deaths and more than 34,000 injuries. But technology developed by a University of Toledo graduate has helped the military reduce that risk during the last couple years.
By using complex sensors attached to small drones, troops can quickly survey the battlefield from the air and avoid or neutralize roadside bombs.
“You’re giving the troops and the commanders situational awareness. You’re giving them eyes and ears that they normally wouldn’t have,” said Benjamin Tran, who studied electrical engineering at UT.
Mr. Tran, a civilian government employee, said the surveillance drones have identified thousands of bombs and saved countless lives since they were first deployed over Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2012.
In their first year of operation, not a single serviceman was killed by an IED in the sector in which the drones were operating.
“It really is a tremendous feeling,” Mr. Tran said. “It makes me feel like I’m doing something good for this country. I’m giving back.” The son of a Vietnamese immigrant who fled his home country shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975, Mr. Tran said he was brought up to loathe the ugliness of war but also to never take for granted the freedoms America offers.
Even as a student at Upper Sandusky High School, Mr. Tran wanted to devote his talents to military research.
He’s done so intensely.
The 32-year-old has worked at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton since graduating from UT in 2005.
During the last four years, Mr. Tran has spent about 10 months on voluntary deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan to develop and set up the drone program.
It’s dangerous, front-line work. But Mr. Tran said it is invaluable experience in order to not only get the technology right but to ensure it works the way it’s supposed to in real life.
Civilian deployments from his section are relatively rare, but he’s become somewhat of an ambassador since going overseas, encouraging others to go for the experience. He said 20 to 30 of his colleagues have deployed.
“It’s had a tremendous impact.”
Mr. Tran has been involved with Air Force research since he was accepted into a co-op program at the Wright-Patterson laboratory as a college freshman. He would return for three more rotations there before graduating.
Rhonda Moore, associate co-op director in the college of engineering and Mr. Tran’s adviser when he was studying at UT, said it’s fairly uncommon for students to get a co-op placement in their first year of study.
But Ms. Moore said she wasn’t surprised that the Air Force wanted Mr. Tran.
“He was just one of those very well-rounded individuals,” she recalled. “You just know sometimes when you meet students they’re going to be a leader no matter what they’re doing, and they’re going to succeed no matter what they do.”
The university honored Mr. Tran in September with an annual award that recognizes outstanding young alumni.
It was just one of a number of accolades he has received in recent months. Earlier this year, he and his research partner, Sean Young, were awarded the 2014 National Security and International Affairs Medal as part of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America program.
“It’s no small testament to their commitment that not only are they working on it in a lab, but they’re traveling to a dangerous part of the world to make sure what they’re building works for the soldiers.” said Lara Shane, a spokesman for the Partnership for Public Service. “Ultimately they’re saving lives and keeping families intact.”
The D.C. nonprofit hands out the awards as a way to recognize good work happening within government, and the dedication of civil servants. Ms. Shane said Mr. Tran and Mr. Young are a perfect example of that.
“I was just struck by how smart they were, how humble, and just how much they enjoyed their work,” she said.
That award included a trip to the White House, where they were greeted by First Lady Michelle Obama.
What makes these surveillance drones so different — and so successful — is the ability to bring capabilities once reserved to the highest command echelons right into the platoon.
With a wingspan of 12 feet and weighing only 40 pounds, the drone can be operated by two or three people. It’s also relatively simple to use. Where many drones are flown by offsite trained Air Force pilots, Mr. Tran said these drones can be operated locally in the field.
But it’s the complex sensors and monitoring technology that allow the drones to root out bombs and other threats. Mr. Tran said some of the capabilities existed in larger aircraft, but his team was able to miniaturize them, make them very accurate, and make them very cost-effective.
How exactly does it work? That’s a question that can’t be answered.
“Those are the details that I can’t divulge. If we talk about what the sensor does and what it’s designed to do, it gets put out in the open, and it’s not going to be as effective anymore,” Mr. Tran said.
At the Air Force Research Laboratory, Mr. Tran works hand-in-hand with other engineers — some military, some not — to quickly develop ways to address the needs of today’s warfighters.
He likens it to the fictional labs in spy flicks.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re James Bond’s Q,” Mr. Tran said. “We’re in the lab with all the new toys. You tell us what your problem is, and we’ll see if we can find a toy that will help you out.”
In the case of his current drone project, troops needed better ways to seek out dangerous IEDs, particularly. The quick success drew the attention of troops around the country, particularly special forces units who continue working to train local security forces.
“During those missions where they’re going out and teaching them how to maintain that security, find bad guys, protect themselves, and protect the villages, they put themselves in harm’s way,” Mr. Tran said.
He worked with a number of people within the U.S. special forces to add some new capabilities.
Now those drones are being widely used.
Mr. Tran said recently a special forces member came back from a mission and gave one of his colleagues a high-five.
One of the drones had sniffed out snipers who likely wouldn’t have been found until it was too late. The drone likely saved his or one of his men’s life.
Mr. Tran said it’s those sorts of interactions — along with the support of his wife, Kelly — that keep him going in what is a very stressful work environment.
Photos: Benjamin Tran
Source: Toledo Blade