Remote-controlled construction equipment developed by the U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville and researchers at the Air Force Research Laboratory recently cleared trees and brush from ranges at two Army installations.
The cleaned-up range now provides a clearer line-of-sight for weapons firing and forward observers.
According to Spencer O’Neal, Huntsville Center project manager on the program, following the initial work at Fort A.P. Hill, Va., the installation determined additional ranges should receive similar vegetation clearance to improve their utility.
“Huntsville Center used their “innovative projects” task order contract with the Dawson Technical – Zapata Incorporated Joint Venture to perform this first-of-a-kind range vegetation clearance,” O’Neal said.
During that second phase of operations, O’Neal said productivity again increased, the quality of work continued to improve and range operators found they have a valuable new tool for their ranges to provide safe and valuable training experiences.
“They plan on doing more range improvements in the coming year,” he said.
O’Neal explained that live fire training ranges are a limited and valuable asset for Soldier training and most of the Army’s ranges have been used extensively for decades, leaving extensive amounts of explosive “duds” on the ranges.
“While the targets and areas around them have often been stripped of vegetation by weapons training, the trees and brush in areas in front of these targets continue to grow with no acceptable technique for controlling or removing them. Manual removals methods are too dangerous or expensive to implement and armored equipment can only protect the operator from fragmentation, but now the overpressure from larger munitions,” he said.
According to O’Neal, a second, larger project at Fort Polk, La., Redleg Impact Area provided opportunities to experience different conditions of tree size, type and density, weather, and terrain.
“Dawson-Zapata Joint Venture and Robotics Fabrication Incorporated, developed and expanded the maintenance program, identified and procured an essential list of spare and repair parts, special tools and auxiliary equipment and further modified the mulchers to improve their toughness and reliability,” he said.
The Redleg Impact Area has been the target for aircraft delivered bombs and rockets, artillery, mortars, antitank rockets and grenades since it opened during World War II.
O’Neal said relatively few detonations have occurred during vegetation removal and these have all resulted in no damage or only minor damage that could be repaired inexpensively in a few hours.
“As a result of these improvements in equipment and procedures, productivity has increased significantly. Although productivity is heavily dependent upon the type, size and density of trees and other characteristics of the terrain, these experiences have provided a valuable basis for estimating productivity and costs,” he said.
However, O’Neal said as expected in any innovative program, there were many lessons to be learned.
“Earlier work at AFRL had paved the way for many applications, but cutting and mulching mature trees on a schedule and budget presented some new problems,” O’Neal said.
“Tree mulching is a violent activity normally moderated by an operator who doesn’t want to be thrown around inside the cab. When the operator was isolated from that punishment, the machine took a beating. Maintenance and repair activities became a major part of the project and resulted in adjustments to operating procedures and modification of the equipment to toughen them for remote control operations. On their first project, productivity averaged about one quarter acre per day, per machine – mostly due to maintenance issues.”
As experience with the remote controlled equipment increased and modifications made the equipment more reliable, O’Neil said productivity increased significantly to more than half-an-acre cleared per-day per-machine in difficult areas and up to two acres per-day, per-machine on areas with brush and small trees.
Following an initial demonstration of the systems at Joint Base Cape Cod, Mass., the mulchers were subsequently deployed to perform the clearance missions at Fort Hill and Fort Polk.