A drone circles the Chabelley Airfield in Djibouti looking for suspicious activity. Not an aerial drone, but an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) called the Mobile Detection Assessment Response System (MDARS). These self-driving vehicles provide perimeter security to a hub for U.S. drone operations in the Horn of Africa and one of the largest U.S. military drone bases. The primary responsibility of the MDARS is to conduct patrols to deter anyone from entering the base.
“We can pretty much send [it] everywhere,” James Bowders, the lead operator of the MDARS, explained in the video below released by the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa. “So it can go into harm’s way as opposed to a soldier or an airman.”
The new robots aren’t the only additions to Chabelley Airfield. Satellite imagery from July 1, 2016 reveals new drone hangars and a great deal of ongoing construction taking place at the airfield. Three large construction projects totalling an estimated $18.1 million are either currently underway or planned for the next year. Here’s what you need to know about the latest changes to America’s drone hub.
The MDARS in Djibouti is made by Land Sea Air Autonomy, a Westminster, Maryland-based company. The MDARS deployed to Chabelley features an intruder detection system payload that consists of a radar, night-vision camera, and two-way audio system. The system is integrated onto a Polaris Ranger Crew, an off-road vehicle which can normally carry four passengers. Land Sea Air Autonomy’s “Robotic Autonomous Platform“, the system upon which the MDARS is based, can also be integrated into other land or maritime vehicles.
The deployment to Chabelley is the culmination of an effort to create a robotic security system that began as early as 1985. The MDARS program, which is a joint Army and Navy effort, was formally initiated in 1988 with the goal of building a security robot for indoors, namely large warehouses and storage areas. The robot was based on the K3A Navmaster robot made by the Virginia-based technology company Cybermotion, Inc. In 1999, the Army awarded General Dynamics Robotic Systems a contract for continued engineering and manufacturing of the MDARS-Interior. However, Cybermotion folded in 2003 and the Army suspended the MDARS-Interior program.
The MDARS-Interior program was the subject of a 2006 audit by the DoD Office of Inspector General which found that poor program oversight by the Army contributed to the failure of the program. Between 1999 and 2003, the Army continued to award General Dynamics contract and milestone extensions as a result of testing failures. A total of $4 million was awarded, up from an initial award of $1.7 million, without any additional oversight by the Army program office.
Following the audit, the Army formally cancelled the MDARS-Interior program, but continued development of the MDARS-Exterior. The MDARS-Exterior program began in 1993 after the Army Program Office awarded General Dynamics Robotics Systems in Westminster, MD a contract to develop an outdoor robot that can maneuver autonomously. A prototype of the platform was successfully demonstrated in 2000 and, by 2007, the Army had ordered half a dozen of the robots for continued tests. In 2010, the first MDARS dneploymet was to the Nevada National Security Site (formerly known as the Nevada Test Site), where it provided 24-hour patrols.
Land Sea Air Autonomy was founded in 2011 by a team that included some former members of General Dynamics Robotics Systems. In 2012, LSA Autonomy produced the MDARS Increment II, the second generation of the long-running patrol vehicle. The MDARS Increment II has an upgraded detection and assessment capability and the ability to provide less lethal response. Unlike the Increment I MDARS, the Increment II robots were created using a commercial platform, the Polaris off-road buggies. The focus of the Increment II is on the autonomous driving and detection capabilities.
A satellite image from July 1, 2016 reveals changes at the Chabelley Airfield U.S. drone base in Djibouti. The image, which was accessed on Google Earth, shows a base buzzing with activity. Several construction projects are either underway or have been recently completed.
The latest construction is evidence that the U.S. military is readying Chabelley Airfield for continued drone operations in the Horn of Africa. When it was first set up in 2013, Chabelley was only meant to be operational for two years. In March 2014, however, AFRICOM reclassified Chabelley as an Enduring Support Location with a life expectancy of up to 10 years. Around the same time, construction began on an expansion of housing facilities at Chabelley, the first physical signs of the transition to a longer-term deployment.
In contrast to Pakistan, where the number of drone strikes has plummeted, U.S. drone operations in Yemen and Somalia — which are likely staged from Chabelley — have remained relatively steady, according to data compiled by “New America“. In fact, there have already been more drone strikes in Somalia in 2016 than in 2015, and twice as many operations overall. Other nations besides the United States have also deployed drones to Chabelley: between September 2014 and February 2015, the Italian Air Force deployed MQ-1 Predator drones to Chabelley to support counter-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa.
The satellite image from July 1, 2016 shows that a project to add additional aircraft aprons and hangars has been completed. Historical satellite imagery reveals that construction began to expand the northeast corner of the base in November of 2014. The first two additional hangars were added in the spring of 2015 and the July 1 image reveals that work has finished on the final two hangars. In addition to the drone hangars, communications equipment and ground control stations for launching the drones have been set up adjacent to the aprons. The finished construction brings the total number of hangars currently in use to 12.
According to the Fiscal Year 2017 (FY17) military construction budget, the U.S. Air Force has proposed spending $6.9 million on paving the parking aprons and taxiways with asphalt or concrete. Currently, the base is constructed using AM-2 metal matting, 12-feet-long (3.7 m) aluminum panels that are used to rapidly build aircraft parking pads and taxiways. The AM-2 matting, which the Air Force has been using since the 1960s, is not intended for permanent use, and it can damage the aircraft if it is not maintained.
The FY17 budget proposal includes $3.6 million to pave the 3.4 mile (5.5 km) gravel access road between Camp Lemonnier, the much larger U.S. military base that adjoins Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport, and Chabelley Airfield. Currently, the road is subject to protruding boulders, edge washout, and potholes. Construction on internal access roads linking parts of Chabelley Airfield has already begun. On April 30, 2016, the Air Force issued a $22,272 contract to MGT Djibouti SARL for gravel for roads at Chabelley Airfield. The satellite image shows a walled staging area for construction vehicles near the entrance to the airfield.The July 1 image shows a construction vehicle working on what will eventually be a 7,720-meter-long perimeter boundary surrounding the base. Currently, the main areas of the base are individually bounded by walls and a road is patrolled by security vehicles, but the base as a whole lacks a protective boundary. In a June 25, 2015 letter of notification to U.S. Representative Charles W. Dent, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Committee on Appropriations, DoD comptroller Michael McCord determined that the $7.6 million project to build the wall was necessary to meet DoD requirements for physical security. It will be constructed out of four layers of concertina wire, six-foot (1.8 m) metal fence posts and will include pedestrian and vehicle entrances, defensive fighting positions, and an upgraded entry control point. On September 29, 2015, the U.S. Navy awarded ECC-MEZZ LLC, a California-based construction company, a $6.96 million contract to construct the perimeter boundary. The July 1 image shows that part of an existing road in the northeastern corner of the base has been rerouted to make way for the construction of the boundary. According to military construction status reports, this project is expected to be completed in March 2017.
Chris Biggers, “African Drone Apron Update”, offiziere.ch, 20.08.2016.