FORT HOOD — Hidden along trees huddles a leader, his soldiers and their Shadows.

In this case, the Shadows are military aerial drones — what the Army refers to as “unmanned aerial vehicles” or UAVs.

Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team were conducting training flights on the drones this week at a small airfield at Fort Hood.

The RQ-7B Shadow 200 has a 21-foot wingspan, weighs 380 pounds and can stay aloft for more than eight hours providing reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition. It is relatively small and lightweight compared to other military drones. It is a rapidly deployable short-range reconnaissance system capable of providing ground units with near real time video imagery day or night, officials said.

“It’s essential for us to be out here to do our job,” said 1st Lt. Matthew Cameron from the brigade’s 91st Brigade Engineer Battalion, which has a platoon devoted to operating the drones. “The technical skill sets associated with this capability are perishable; it is essential to do hands-on training like this whenever possible.”

Launched from a mobile catapult system, the Shadow is capable of air speeds ranging from 60 to 110 knots. As a tactical capability for a brigade-sized headquarters, the Shadow is a versatile UAV with a suite of communications and full-motion video components.

To serve as one of the operators of the Shadow, these pilots had to complete the Army’s rigorous six-month school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in order to qualify for an assignment with the platoon.

For soldiers new to the unit, this real-world training provides a unique insight and perspective.

“Working with my teammates out here has been really great. I would definitely recommend this type of hands-on training because it is better than any other type of training out there”, said Pfc. Brett Beard.

UAV operators are a small and dedicated community in the Army, with many of the soldiers having multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and frequent rotations to countries around the world. In fact, the platoon training this week recently completed a rotation to Poland and Germany in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

Warrant Officer Brandon Dupuis, an instructor-operator for the platoon, serves not only as a leader but also as a mentor with over 1,200 flight hours of combined experience in both garrison and combat in area such as Iraq and Jordan.

“The Army is kind of a unique environment in that it mixes a few of the senior people that have the experience, and can pass that on to the younger generations,” he said. “So, I try to impress my experience upon the younger soldiers to try to prepare them for what is necessary to learn for the different aspects of combat.”

No matter where the platoon is employed it serves a unique purpose. The Shadow can coordinate with crewed aircraft or artillery to destroy the target. When soldiers on the ground have an unmanned system such as the Shadow RQ-7B on their team, they do not have to risk the lives of others for reconnaissance, officials said.

“I think the Shadow 200 is an incredible asset for the brigade commander,” Cameron said. “It’s highly mobile and deployable. In a near peer or peer environment we can potentially be helping division find targets and saving soldiers within our brigade.”