Drone flights could jump nearly 10-fold at Wallops
Drone technology may seem like the hot new thing.
At NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility? That’s sooo 20th century. The spaceport’s original name in 1945, after all, was the Pilotless Aircraft Research Station.
These days, officials with NASA and the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority are hoping to continue that tradition well into the 21st century with the construction of a longer airstrip dedicated to drone flights.
Construction of the 3,000-foot-long, 75-foot-wide runway near the northern tip ofWallops Island is expected to begin next spring and be completed by the end of 2016. A deal between NASA, which owns the land, and the state of Virginia, which will build and operate the runway, is close to being finalized.
Expectations only get bigger from there. Given its NASA affiliation and the availability of the Atlantic Ocean for crash landings, the runway could become a key player in the booming drone industry, proponents say.
NASA predicts drone traffic could increase up to 10-fold once the new field is open.
“It’s a little more of a controlled environment than you’re going to find at other airports,” said Zigmond Leszczynski, Virginia Space’s deputy executive director. “We feel like, sort of, we have a niche market we can develop there.”
Advocates see the runway as a test range for a variety of users: commercial, government and academic.
“This will be a purpose-built platform for the companies to come in to test, validate and to grow their operational experience,” said Peter Bale, a drone industry consultant and head of the Wallops Island Regional Alliance, a business coalition that promotes the NASA facility’s commercial interests.
Nationwide, there are big hopes for drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or systems.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International recently put the total economic impact of drones during the first three years they were integrated into the national airspace in the United States at more than $13.6 billion, with more than 70,000 jobs created.
The impact on Virginia could be $342 million by 2025, according to the organization.
The commonwealth was one of six test sites designated by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 for development of unmanned aerial systems. The Virginia Tech-led partnership includes locations in Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.
The FAA expects to finalize rules on commercial drone operations by mid-2016. That, drone advocates say, will open the floodgates to a technology that promises to transform a myriad of industries, ranging from agriculture to real estate and from retailing to transportation.
And those developers will need to have a place where they can test that new technology before it hits the market. Enter: Wallops.
“This isn’t a new activity for us, but it’s a growing activity,” said Bruce Underwood, NASA Wallops’ deputy director.
Drone users have two choices at present for places to take off at Wallops: the runways at the main base on the mainland, which can support the largest of drones, and a small airstrip at the southern tip of the island.
The island runway was built with drones in mind in 2003. But even when the converted service road was lengthened to 1,500 feet in 2005, it was still too short for all but the most modest of UAVs, Underwood said.
It also runs north and south, making aircraft vulnerable to the prevailing east-west winds on takeoff and landing. The nail in the coffin: the need to clear the area of personnel on and around the higher-profile rocket launch pad whenever the airstrip was in use.
“What happened was with the growth of our launch activities, that area on the south end of the island was getting a little crowded and a little busy,” Underwood said. “With people on the launch pad all the time, with safety issues, it created scheduling issues for us.”
Wallops typically flew 70 to 130 UAV flights per year from 2007 to 2009, NASA has reported. With the new, larger airstrip, the facility could host up to 1,040 drone flights a year, an average of about four per day, officials say.
NASA performed the regulatory legwork to construct the new airstrip, including a lengthy environmental assessment in 2012. But federal funding never came through.
In 2014, Virginia State Sen. Frank Wagner, R-7-Va., successfully pushed the state to pick up the tab, which came to $5.8 million — $4 million for construction and $1.8 million for operations.
Although the new strip will be twice the length of the existing one, it will only be used for slightly larger aircraft — those with a 20-foot wingspan as opposed to 17.5.
NASA first sought federal regulatory review of the new airstrip in 2010, five years after it extended the southern airstrip, the Environmental Protection Agency noted in its comments on the report. Such a fast turnaround raises questions about whether the new one will stand the test of time, EPA staff wrote.
“While the EPA can appreciate that the (UAV) technology and scientific community using these aircraft is growing rapidly, the EPA remains concerned that the speed at which new needs are identified have and will continue to outpace the facilities capacity. It is the concern of the EPA that natural resources will be impacted multiple times” by further construction, EPA officials said.
NASA replied that the Viking 400 aircraft, the largest it intends to fly, will be used at the airstrip for 20 years.
Although many of the flights are expected to involve aircraft with unproven safety track records, NASA downplayed the threat to people on the ground its in 2012 assessment. It had flown 312 UAV operations over the previous three years and had experienced no crashes or injuries, officials wrote.
The worst incident, agency officials said, came when “one hard landing resulted in anAerosonde vehicle skidding off the airstrip and into a ditch.”
An Aerosonde has a wingspan of 9 feet and weighs less than 30 pounds fully loaded.
If anything goes wrong, the facility’s restricted airspace extends 3 miles into the ocean, officials say.
Accomack County Supervisor Grayson Chesser has been critical of NASA’s safety protocol for its rocket program. But he said in an interview he has no issues with the relocated drone runway.
“It’s probably one of the better places you could do that,” he said.