Fort Bragg unmanned aerial vehicles will fly over civilian airspace in coming years, but pose no threat, officials said Thursday.
Speaking during a meeting of the Regional Land Advisory Committee, post officials outlined the unmanned vehicles — commonly known as drones — in use on Fort Bragg and briefed the group on plans to bring in larger unmanned vehicles.
The unmanned vehicles now used on Fort Bragg are for surveillance and reconnaissance. They are relatively small machines that can be hand-launched or slingshot into the air by other machines.
But in 2016, post officials said they expect the MQ-1C Gray Eagle to be added to the post arsenal.
The Gray Eagle is a variant of the Predator used by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The use of the Predator to target enemies has been criticized by some groups.
The Gray Eagle is capable of carrying Hellfire and Stinger missiles or laser-guided bombs, but there are no plans to arm the vehicles while in use on Fort Bragg, said David Yow, air operations and plans officer for Fort Bragg's Department of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security.
"It will not be armed here at Fort Bragg," Yow reiterated throughout the meeting, although he admitted that policies could change in the future.
The Gray Eagles, about nine in total, will be based at Camp Mackall starting in July 2016. The camp is 7 miles west of Fort Bragg's vast training areas.
Gray Eagles will have to fly across civilian land to reach Fort Bragg, but only over sparsely populated areas, Yow said.
The flights, which Yow said will average two or three a day, will be monitored by soldiers on the ground. And the machine's surveillance equipment will not be used during the flight between military land.
"The military's not going to be spying.," Yow said. "This will be like a Cessna going overhead."
Fort Bragg officials expect questions about the unmanned vehicles and said Thursday's presentation was part of the outreach to educate the community.
Jean Powell, chairwoman of the Regional Land Use Advisory Committee, is a Hoke County commissioner. The Gray Eagles will cross Hoke County on their way to Fort Bragg.
Powell said she expects concerns from residents.
But Yow said the machines would likely only fly over farmland and other sparsely populated areas.
He said residents had nothing to fear.
"We're not going to be doing any criminal investigations or anything like that in the military," he said.
Yow said unmanned vehicles were the future of aviation, and North Carolina civilian authorities are positioning themselves to be leaders in the industry.
"They're here to stay," he said.
Yow said the term "drone" is incorrect because it implies an automated system. He said unmanned aerial vehicles are controlled by operators via radio or satellite controls.
Yow spoke briefly about ongoing attempts to regulate unmanned aerial vehicles and the timeline the Federal Aviation Administration has set for installing guidelines for civilian use.
The unmanned aerial vehicle market is expected to double to $11 billion in the next 10 years, Yow said, with much of the growth coming from law enforcement.
Eventually, he said, the industry is likely to be dominated by agricultural uses.
"It's not just for the military," Yow said.
Civilian agencies have asked for permission to use Fort Bragg air space for unmanned vehicles, but Yow said those requests have been denied due to a lack of space.
Large swaths of the Fort Bragg training areas are already being used for training on the vehicles currently in use at the post. That includes three types of unmanned vehicles, all meant for surveillance and reconnaissance.
The RQ-11 Raven and RQ-7B Shadow are used by Fort Bragg infantry brigades, Yow said. The FQM-151 is used by Marines who occasionally train on post.
None of those vehicles leave the Fort Bragg airspace, he said.
Camille Cole, head of the master planning branch at Fort Bragg, said the Gray Eagle was originally planned to come to the post in 2012.
The post began preparing for the unmanned vehicles in 2007, but plans were repeatedly changed over the years.
Originally, the Gray Eagle was going to be stationed at Pope Field, but plans were approved last June to instead use Camp Mackall's airfield, which was deemed the safest location.
Design of a hangar and operations center for the Gray Eagle will begin later this year, with a contract for construction expected to be approved in October, Cole said.