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Unmanned military planes fly over Hampton Roads

VIRGINIA BEACH — Small unmanned surveillance planes routinely hum over Virginia Beach, but few residents seem to know about them.

The military aircraft are some of the same drones the U.S. government uses regularly to spy on Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

Here, the Air Force planes are used to train members of Special Operations Forces, who in turn will be expected to pilot the drones overseas.

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On any given day, the aircraft are permitted to fly near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at Fort Story and over farmland surrounding Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake.

With names like Raven, Wasp and ScanEagle, the reconnaissance planes are among hundreds of drones registered to fly over domestic airspace.

The five known to fly locally were made public last month when the Federal Aviation Administration released thousands of documents detailing unmanned aircraft activity across the country.

The military, which has to register with the FAA if it intends to fly off base and into civilian airspace, has been licensed to launch drones from Fort Story since at least 2008, according to the documents, but the activity has never been publicized before now.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said he was unaware of drone flights over the city but said he's confident the military has taken appropriate measures to ensure privacy.

"I'm not worried about it," he said. "I understand they've got to do some things that they can't necessarily talk about."

A Naval Special Warfare spokesman said the drones are used for "routine training and proficiency flights." The drones are not flown over populated areas or private property, the spokesman said in an email statement, declining to provide more details about the flights.

The military, in its drone flight applications to the FAA, was required to detail where the aircraft will fly and how often. The documents include maps outlining the flight operations area.

Four drones — all but one of them electric and small enough to be launched by hand — were registered to fly from Fort Story in 2012. According to the public records, the planes fly five days a week from sunrise to sunset, primarily over the bay, but also over "unpopulated land" near the base. The aircraft are restricted from flying over homes or within 1,000 feet of Shore Drive, according to the documents.

One hand-launched drone was registered to fly at Fentress three days a week over the base and over unpopulated land within a 2.5-mile radius of the runway. The airfield is primarily surrounded by forest and farmland.

The stealthy aircraft — with wingspans ranging from 2 to 10 feet — are permitted to fly at maximum heights from 700 to 1,000 feet and are controlled remotely by operators on the ground. During flights over the bay, operators can control and monitor the aircraft from boats.

All of the drones come equipped with super-high-resolution and infrared video cameras, according to manufacture specifications, but the FAA documents don't state whether the cameras are activated during flights. That's troubling to privacy and civil liberties advocates who have complained about a lack of transparency and regulation of drone flights over U.S. soil.

The FAA released the documents that revealed the flights in Hampton Roads in response to a 2011 Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The San Francisco-based nonprofit advocates for privacy rights and has been critical of the proliferation of domestic drone activity.

The FAA has issued more than 750 drone licenses since it started the program in 2005, and many still haven't been made public.

Across the country, unmanned aircraft are used by police, the U.S. Border Patrol, the military and research universities, including Virginia Tech, which uses them to sample air currents in the study of a fungus that has been devastating crops.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has expressed support for allowing State Police to deploy drones. Nationally, some police departments have used drones to enforce traffic laws or to spy on criminal suspects.

"I think, generally, people are freaked out by this," said Jennifer Lynch, an attorney who has led the Electronic Frontier Foundation's efforts to obtain drone flight records. "It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative, people have concerns about the potential for this type of government intrusion."

Amie Stepanovich, an expert in the study of domestic drone surveillance with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., said there is no enforcement mechanism to prevent the military or other drone operators from spying on U.S. citizens.

Air Force policy on domestic drone flights states that "exercise and training missions will not conduct nonconsensual surveillance on specifically identified U.S. persons, unless expressly approved by the Secretary of Defense, consistent with U.S. law and regulations."

The policy does allow for "incidental collection" of information, which can then be passed on to law enforcement officials. That troubles Stepanovich, who points to a New York Times report in July that found that the Air Force was training drone pilots by tracking private vehicles driving near a base in New Mexico.

Those types of reports could become more common in coming years, Stepanovich predicts.

"The use of drones in the U.S. is more common than people realize, and it's going to become more common in the next 10 years," she said. "The problem is this allows the government to conduct surveillance on a level that is just unprecedented in the United States. It presupposes that everyone is a criminal until proven innocent."

Most people don't realize how effective modern drones are at tracking people, Lynch said. "It's both incredible and frightening," she said.

One of the unmanned aircraft registered to fly from Fort Story, the Raven, was used in the recent film, "Act of Valor," which starred real-life Navy SEALs and was made in partnership with the Navy.

In the movie, a special operator motoring in a river boat tosses the Raven into the sky and pilots the drone over a drug cartel compound deep in a South American jungle. A team of SEALs is preparing to raid the compound to rescue a captured CIA agent.

With crystal-clear aerial footage, the drone operator radios key details to SEAL snipers on the ground and later alerts the team of special operators when a truck of armed men is approaching.

Aided by the tiny plane flying silently above, the SEALs rescue the agent, kill the bad guys, commandeer a pickup and speed away into the jungle.

mike.hixenbaugh@pilotonline.com

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