Navy making plans for drone tests on Va., Md. coasts
The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va.
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Residents in parts of the Northern Neck just might spot some unusual flying objects in coming months, if they haven’t already.
The Navy has prepared an environmental assessment on its plan to increase testing of unmanned aerial, land and underwater systems — also known as drones — in its Atlantic Test Ranges. The ATR’s 1,800-square-mile inner range overlaps Maryland portions of the Chesapeake Bay and parts of Westmoreland, Northumberland and Lancaster counties in Virginia’s Northern Neck.
As part of its environmental review, the Navy must notify the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. DEQ then determines whether the proposal is consistent with the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program.
The Navy says the plan would have no impact on land, water or natural resources in Virginia, though it “would lead to minor increases in air pollution emissions” from aircraft. DEQ has until mid-October to agree or object to potential impacts.
The core of the inner range is centered on the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the nearby Webster Field Annex and the Bloodsworth Island Range off Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The Navy wants to expand its testing and evaluation program to develop a new generation of drones, along with their associated sensors and payloads. The environmental assessment says only aerial equipment would operate in Virginia, where there’s a swath of restricted-range airspace. No sea- or land-based systems are tested in Virginia.
The aerial drones undergoing testing range from lightweight models, such as the Puma, with a wingspan of 8.5 feet and a surveillance range of about 6 miles, to the Triton, with a wingspan of 131 feet and requiring a runway for takeoff. The Triton has a range of more than 15,000 miles and can stay aloft for 24 hours.
The unmanned aircraft are grouped in five categories according to size, with Group 1 being the smallest and Group 5 the largest. Under the Navy’s preferred alternative, yearly flight hours would increase from 156 hours to 384 hours for Group 1; 100 to 252 hours for Group 2; 303 to 751 hours for Group 3; 428 to 1,056 hours for Group 4; and 426 to 1,024 hours for Group 5. Hours for lighter-than-air craft, in a separate category, would rise from 60 to 100 hours.
Brandi Simpson, an environmental scientist with the Atlantic Test Ranges, said in an email that it is difficult to estimate the total number of additional flight hours over the Northern Neck. Those flights are “tracked for the entire restricted airspace not specific areas,” she said.
All types of drones can fly over the Virginia counties, but the smaller ones (Groups 1–3) typically fly over Virginia waters only, given their limited range.
The largest ones (Groups 4 and 5) flying over the Northern Neck would operate at a minimum altitude of 3,500 feet, in accordance with the flight restrictions for the airspace.
According to the Navy, unmanned aircraft testing began as early as 1960 at the ATR’s inner range, with a QH–50 Gyrodyne Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter. In the 1980s, a detachment was created at Webster Field Annex to train ground crew members on the RQ–2 Pioneer, the first surveillance drone used by the U.S. military. Numerous others have been developed and tested since then.
The environmental assessment is currently under an interagency review period that ends Oct. 18. The Navy is expected to make its final determination by year’s end.