Codenamed Skywalker, the young lieutenant was delicately guiding his drone around a building when he spotted his quarry, men dressed in black making their way inside the same structure his Scout Ranger unit were about to enter.
Without taking his eyes off the screen and with both hands firmly clutching the remote control, he barks an order to his assistant to relay an urgent message – enemies spotted, abort the building entry!
On the other side of Marawi, a group of men huddles together as they watch the white DJI Phantom 4 slowly rise up in the air.
Shouting Allahu Akbar, the men cheer as the operator does a punch out – the commercial quadcopter launching off at great speed towards the sky until it can barely be seen.
At the Lanao del Sur provincial capitol, another huddle was quickly forming, this time composed mostly of women, their eyes straining to see a drone video of the main battle area from GMA reporter Sandra Aguinaldo’s five-inch phone screen.
The video showed buildings on fire, entire neighborhoods covered in thick black smoke, houses razed to the ground.
Behind them, the spokesman for the provinces’ crisis management committee was silently observing.
Suddenly he retreated to the back of the room. Holding back tears, he quickly left the room not wanting anyone to see his emotion.
On the small phone screen was the smoldering ruins of his ancestral home.
It was still standing based on a drone video the previous day. But now it’s gone.
Like many other homes inside the main battle area, the house he grew up in was burned to the ground.
This was Marawi City almost a month into the battle to drive out the terrorist group Maute-ISIS from the city.
For the next four months, Marawi would become a theater of war where commercial drones would play a crucial role, a first in the history of conflicts in the country.
After Sandra showed the drone footage I took to that small huddle of women at the provincial capitol, I posted it on my social media accounts.
And almost immediately, requests came pouring in.
“Please fly over Lumbak Madaya.”
“Can your drone go to Marinaut, i want to see our home.”
“Sir check Padian please, I beg you. You are our only hope of finding out what is going on [in] our place.”
There were too many inquiries that it was hard to keep up.
Besides, the military has started to restrict the flying of drones.
Fair warning, they told journalists covering the war, “We will shoot down any unauthorized drones we see flying over the MBA (main battle area).”
“We won’t be able to distinguish between a journalist’s drone and a terrorist one. So if it’s not ours, we will have to take it down,” a military officer explained.
“Even if we allow you,” the officer adds, “the terrorists will surely shoot down your drones too.”
But speaking with a Marine commander, he told me. “I don’t have a problem with you flying a drone into the MBA. Just make sure you don’t interfere with our operation and whatever footage you get, make sure my men’s operational security will not be compromised.”
As a drone flew over us from the 103rd Brigade headquarters overlooking the MBA, he says, “it’s a risk you have to take, there’s a big possibility you will lose you drone.”
What is an added risk to an already risky coverage, I told myself. My drone is a personal property anyway. The risk was all on me.
Near a military checkpoint where I have been taking off since I arrived, a team of foreign journalists were also taking a risk.
We all wanted the same footage, a video of what was happening inside the MBA.
For the entire duration of the war, journalists were barred from entering the main battle area. Occasionally, some were allowed in areas declared clear by the military.
But for the most part, journalists had to contend with observing the war from the highest available structure in the safe zone. Until that was also forbidden by the military.
It was for our own safety according to them.
But a military officer frankly admitted, they didn’t want the image of destruction splashed all over the news. It’s bad publicity, he explained, especially those taken by drones showing the wide swathe of destruction in the Islamic City.
Using drones, it turns out, was the safest way for us to cover and to continue our commitment of responsibly informing the public of what was really happening in Marawi.
I bumped into the same foreign news team a couple of days later.
“We lost our drone over the lake”, they told me. “We didn’t know what happened, it just went down,” their local fixer said.
“We will try to retrieve it. We were not able to download the previous days’ videos before it went down,” the drone operator said, a look of frustration written all over his face.
That’s when it hit me, the risk was all too real.
But for Skywalker, the risk was worth every centavo of the mid-priced commercial quadcopter.
A combat officer in Basilan, he was charged with operating the drone for the battalion’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operation when they arrived in Marawi.
Battle-tested as a marksman, Skywalker never flew a drone before.
After only a couple hours of practice, he flew his first drone ISR mission.
It went out without a hitch. But he was flying a hundred meters off the ground, not much danger out there except for the wind, but not much to be seen down below either.
A couple more weeks of flying and he was cruising at sixty to fifty meters above the city, men in black running from building to building now more clearly visible in his small smart phone monitor.
Gaining confidence everyday, he was soon directing tank maneuvers to hit enemy targets based on what he was seeing – a real time intelligence information in the battlefield once reserved only to more advanced foreign military units.
Like his brothers-in-arms in the US Special Forces, who were inside Camp Ranao, the 103rd Infantry Battalion headquarters in Marawi.
The US personnel arrived with boxes of hi-tech equipments to aid Philippine military commanders with vital battlefield information.
But the Americans were not only relying on their advanced fixed wing unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.
The US Special Forces were also utilizing the same commercial quadcopter that Skywalker was using.
For a moment, the Scout Ranger felt, he was at par with his US counterparts.
But the steady buzzing sound of a P-3 Orion spy plane high above the city was a realization, the Armed Forces of the Philipines is still way behind in military hardware.
But what they lack in equipments, the Scout Rangers made up for in skill and intuition.
On one of his missions, Skywalker was flying low to spot where the sniper fire was coming from when he saw a flash of light.
Realizing his drone was being targeted by the sniper, he immediately jerked the control to steer the drone away from the source of the flash.
With light traveling faster than a speeding bullet, a split second was all he needed.
But looking at his monitor, he saw the drone wobble. He immediately landed his quadcopter.
Inspecting the small drone, he saw what caused the aircraft to shake.
The bullet grazed one of the propellers, a scratch visible on the plastic props.
But his drone was safe. More importantly he learned exactly where the enemy sniper was positioned.
Wasting no time, Skywalker ordered an artillery strike, silencing the terrorist shooter. Only then was their battalion able to advance to their next objective.
But drones from other units were not as lucky.
Perhaps as many as 10 commercial drones being flown by the military may have gone down during the five-month military operation, according to Skywalker.
Most the result of enemy fire, some by accident and at least one because of friendly fire, he amusingly admits.
Towards the end of the military operation, their drones ruled the skies over Marawi, freely cruising above the ruins.
And so when Skywalker started filming what seemed to be just another body retrieval operation of enemies killed on October 16, he didn’t know he was filming history.
Noticing troops dragging two lifeless bodies near a tank, he went lower. The early morning light barely illuminating the area, he saw the soldiers urgently load the two bodies onto the waiting tank.
His drone was still in the air when the tank stopped in front of their advanced command post and its heavy doors swung open.
An excited scream from their battalion ex-o said it all… “we got two possible HVI’s (high value individuals), one of them could be IH (Isnilon Hapilon).”
A few hours later, the military made the confirmation, terrorist leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute are dead.
The very next day, the president announced Marawi was free from the terrorist group.
That historic moment may have been unforgettable for Skywalker and his unit.
But the Scout Ranger says, the more memorable moments of his entire drone experience were the countless times he was able to warn his buddies of impending danger and reporting exactly where the enemies were before they can even strike.
As their eye in the sky, he says, whenever he took off, he felt a huge responsibility for the safety of his unit than at any other times in his young military career.
Skywalker eventually logged more than 500 hours of flight time, flying up to 15 times a day in the operation to retake Marawi, making him arguably one of the most experienced drone operators in the country.
Not much is known about the drone operation of the terrorist group, except for a few footages posted on social media showing the drone punch out and a propaganda video made by ISIS posted on their media website.
The video showed parts of Marawi smoldering as the drone passed by the minarets of the Grand Mosque.
Another showed a downward view of a neighborhood burned to the ground.
But just like the military, their drones were also being used to spy on enemy movements, according to Muhammad Ilham Syahputra, the Indonesian terrorist arrested while trying to escape Marawi last week.
When he was presented to the media, the terrorist claimed he was a drone operator and was tasked to monitor military maneuvers.
Gaunt, weak and starving, the Indonesian said for most of the last few weeks of the war, they had been hiding in basements and tunnels.
Being a drone operator, he must have known the dangers of being seen by the watchful eye of the military drones.
No doubt who won the drone war over Marawi. —ALG, GMA News