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Drone testing begins to take off at Dahlgren

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Out of a light-gray backpack that weighed less than 5 pounds, Nelson Mills pulled out parts of what looked like a miniature plane.

Members of the audience craned their necks to see. About 60 people were at the Dahlgren campus of the University of Mary Washington Monday night for King George Supervisor Ruby Brabo’s quarterly town-hall meeting.

“This is a real bird, it flies,” said Mills, a senior engineer with the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division.

As he attached the nose, tail and wings, Mills explained that the drone—or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle—is known as the Raven. It’s the same type used in the field by Marines and Navy SEALs.

“They’re a lot quicker than me at assembling things. It takes me a little bit,” Mills told the group.

He didn’t fly the Raven, which looked a little like a model airplane, minus the color stripes and registration numbers.

The Raven is fully electric, flies for about 45 minutes and costs $20,000 to $30,000, Mills said.

Mills has been at the Navy base in Dahlgren for 29 years and is working with a newly formed consortium.

The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership is charged by Congress with figuring out ways to safely integrate drones into the national airspace system.

It’s one of six research and test groups nationwide selected by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Virginia Tech leads the effort, which includes the University of Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey. Mills and others working on the initiative will report to governors in all three states.

Mills gave the demonstration at the request of Capt. Pete Nette, outgoing commanding officer of Naval Support Activity South Potomac, which includes the Dahlgren base.

Nette leaves next month to assume a new command in Norfolk. He’s being replaced by a fellow aviator, Capt. Mary Feinberg.

There were few questions from the audience, other than how much the drone cost and how it might be used.

Mills said the consortium is exploring those applications. A Port Royal farmer who owns 600 acres of flat land has asked for the drone to be used on his property, as a way to monitor crops.

Officials at the Colonial Beach Dragstrip have asked for it to be tested there, too.

So have weather researchers, those who watch whales or follow schools of fish to determine weather patterns and rescuers looking for lost people.

Mills stressed that the group, which has been doing test flights on the Navy’s Potomac River range, has to “walk before you can run.”

He foresees a commercial application for the unmanned aircraft. After the group researches the pertinent safety information, perhaps a business could come to the area and offer the drones for rental—in the future.

“That’s not going to be available for a while,” Mills said, adding he didn’t expect to see that kind of Raven flying commercially over a farm anytime soon.

When the group does discuss drone usage, King George resident Carolyne Ashton said she hoped “privacy rights” would be part of the conversation.

“We’re just regular citizens who do not want to be watched by something like that,” she said.

Mills agreed that the public needs to get used to seeing drones before police departments and sheriff’s offices start using them.

That’s why he and others will continue their research with the consortium as the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren tests other applications of drones.

Last month, Navy officials had their first fixed-wing flight from the base’s runway in more than a decade.

The aircraft was the Raven’s big brother, a large Group 3 drone that weighs more than 50 pounds and can stay in the air for nine hours.

The flights successfully tested the combat system’s integration with a drone, according to a story published on the Navy’s website.

“Dahlgren has a unique historical pedigree when it comes to aviation,” Nette said in the online story. “It’s great to see the main runway back in service as [we] work to give warfighters the technology they need to accomplish their missions.”

cdyson@freelancestar.com
 

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