pioneer_n_peeps.jpgSlate has a pointed, on-the-scene report from just outside Fallujah, where a team of Marines is keeping watch over the battle, through the infrared eyes of a Pioneer flying drone. Go read it. Now. Here's a taste:"The raiding party wants us to scan across the river," Cpl. Robert Daniels said, reading a chat-room message that had popped up on his computer monitor. "Someone's firing.""Take us east," Neumann said over his shoulder. "Shift from white-hot to black-hot."Behind him, the pilot of the UAV adjusted the flight path as his partner tightened the zoom on the plane's camera. The images on the screen jumped slightly and focused on two black spots hopping from place to place behind an earthen berm."I confirm weapons," said Sg. Jenifer Forman, an imagery analyst. "Watch their right arms when they run. They're shooting across the river."When the black spots bobbed together, the screen suddenly bloomed white, then settled back into focus, showing a thick gray cloud and a scattering of small black spots, like someone in the cloud had thrown out a handful of rocks."Tank gun got them," Neumann said. "Picked them up on their thermals. They're scratched. Scan up the street."This is good news -- really good news -- for the troops locked in the Fallujah fight. The big unmanned spy planes, like the Predator and the Global Hawk, have had a tough time peering into cities. If the medium-sized, pneumatically-launched Pioneer is having better luck, that gives the marines there a huge edge.THERE'S MORE: In recent months, the Pioneer operators of VMU-1 (short, somehow, for "Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, Marine Aircraft Control Group 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing") have been flying their drones throughout Iraq's troubled Al-Anbar region. And they have been working, hard."Under normal training conditions we sustain 200 to 250 flight hours per year," 1st Lt. Jose A. Nicolas, a VMU-1 aircraft maintenance officer told Marine Corps News, VMU-1 and native of Houston. "So far we have averaged between 460 to 500 hours per month out here, or 16 to 20 hours per day.""We observe (insurgents) setting up ambushes, moving weapons or help assess targets before and after a strike," intelligence analyst Lance Cpl. Robert Daniels added. "If the ground commanders want us to direct or adjust artillery fire or close air support we can do that. We can direct any payload to any target."

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