Unmanned construction equipment maneuvered through an impact area at Fort Bragg to chop down vegetation, while treading carefully for unexploded ordnance left behind after years of live-fire training exercises.
It's the first phase of a $40 million project to build an aerial gunnery range at Fort Bragg just south of drop zones Sicily, Normandy, Salerno and Holland. The range, which could take six years to complete, will provide rotary wing aircraft bombing and target practice for aviators.
"I'm looking forward to finally giving aviators an opportunity to train at a world-class facility," said Wolf Amacker, Fort Bragg's range control chief. "Currently, we don't have an aerial gunnery range. Aviators have to go off somewhere else to get qualified."
The aerial gunnery range project was launched in 2008, after plans for a different type of range were scrapped due to cost overruns. It will encompass a western chunk of the Coleman Impact Area, where soldiers have fired all types of munition during training exercises for years.
With that in mind, officials knew the project would first require people to comb the land for unexploded ordnance.
Bids came in as high as $60 million, but Fort Bragg found a cheaper alternative by contracting with a company that uses unmanned robotics technology -- eliminating people from the hazardous job.
Robotics operators from Colorado-based Environmental Chemical Corp. have been remotely controlling construction equipment to remove trees and other vegetation as part of the first phase. They also indicate where they find objects or potential unexploded ordnance to be investigated further.
Once the vegetation is cleared, a crew can safely move onto the land to construct the range, which is expected to take about two years. Finally, another crew will install targets, which also could take about two years.
"Attack helicopters need large areas to maneuver," Amacker said. "The aerial gunnery range gives them the distance."
The range will primarily be used by aviators with the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, he said.
Last year, there were 4.8 million events on the ground and 95,000 air movements in the training area at Fort Bragg, Amacker said.
"The only thing busier than the ground on Fort Bragg is the air," he said.
Robotics operators will remove trees from about 1,100 acres on the range. They anticipated the vegetation removal would take about 270 days and will be done in January.
Each piece of construction equipment has multiple cameras attached to pan and zoom. There is also a data recorder on the equipment so operators can pinpoint latitude and longitude coordinates.
Inside the command trailer, Nicholas Bolinger was one of four robotics operators watching a computer screen as he maneuvered the construction equipment.
He sat back coolly, with a video game controller in his hands.
He's smooth now, but at first, he had to get used to limited peripheral vision and depth-perception.
"I had to get used to looking through the camera," he said.
He's careful to move through the land and record areas that need to be investigated further.
Operators have located some pieces of unexploded ordnance, but nothing has been set off in the course of their maneuvers, said Rafael "Ray" Velazquez, senior project manager for ECC.
"The most rewarding thing is we get to provide the government a training area that normally we wouldn't be able to because of cost," he said.