McAuliffe to use UAV flight to kick off $5M drone runway on Eastern Shore
Gov. Terry McAuliffe is set to soar Thursday in an autonomous Centaur aircraft on the Eastern Shore to launch the state’s new $5 million runway dedicated to drone research and development.
McAuliffe said the flight will make him the first governor in the country to fly in an unmanned aerial vehicle, while the airstrip effectively vaults Virginia into the lead in UAVs.
Asked by a reporter Wednesday if he was scared of his upcoming drone flight, the governor insisted he wasn’t.
“No, I’m excited,” McAuliffe said, calling it a “historic day for Virginia.”
“These autonomous vehicles — whether it’s drones, whether it be autonomous cars on the roads, whether it be maritime — I want Virginia to lead that,” he said.
The new airstrip sits on the north end of Wallops Island — 3,000 feet long, 75 feet wide and now officially open for business.
Orbital ATK Launches from Wallops Island
The Orbital ATK Launch to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Officials say it’s the only one of its kind in the country, purpose-built specifically for unmanned aerial vehicles or systems.
NASA Wallops Flight Facility said the governor won’t be taking off and landing on the new drone runway, but on one of NASA’s larger airstrips on its main base a few miles away. There will be a pilot aboard as backup.
The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, now known as Virginia Space, is actively seeking out customers for the new drone airstrip among the Department of Defense, NASA, academia and private industry.
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Virginia Space manages the state-owned Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which launches commercial cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. MARS also launched NASA’s LADEE mission in 2013 to study dust in the lunar atmosphere.
The new drone runway, said Virginia Space Executive Director Dale Nash, “provides new capabilities” for the MARS facility and heralds even more.
The airstrip can handle vehicles up to and including the heavy Predator- and Reaper-class drones, he said. It also has a large concrete pad at one end that’s rated up to 5,000 pounds per square inch to handle vehicles on vertical takeoff.
Another important benefit is that it’s in restricted airspace that services NASA and the military and abuts warning areas in the Atlantic that the military uses for military sea and air exercises.
“So not only can we operate in about 75 square miles of airspace, but we can fly right out over the ocean into the warning areas,” Nash said, “and that’s about 65 nautical miles up and down the coast.
“This runway, this airfield, gets to and from it. It’s like the (spaceport) launch pad gets us off the ground to the International Space Station and the moon; this gets us off the ground and into the airspace where people can go test not only their UAVs but all sorts of instrumentation and science on it.”
Nash and Aubrey Layne, Virginia’s secretary of transportation, declined to say which private companies might one day be testing their technologies at the airstrip, citing confidentiality concerns. The Virginia Department of Transportation oversees Virginia Space.
Still, said Layne, “there is significant interest, both by commercial and Department of Defense people, wanting to use the facility.”
The state plans to enhance the runway by building a secure payload processing facility, support buildings and a deep-water dock to test and develop autonomous vehicles that can operate on and under the sea.
“I want Virginia to own the land and the air and the water,” McAuliffe said.
State lawmakers set aside $5.8 million in fiscal year 2015 to build the runway. VDOT managed the construction, which Nash said came in at $5 million. The remainder will be used for development and business operations.
UAVs have considerable economic potential.
According to Virginia Space, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International put the total economic impact of drones in the first three years they were integrated into U.S. airspace at more than $13.6 billion, with more than 70,000 jobs created.
In Virginia, the impact could be $342 million by 2025, the group said.
The new drone airstrip is considered a key milestone in the latest five-year strategic plan for the spaceport. The plan, in short, is to drum up more customers, diversify into drones, expand infrastructure, help educate and inspire the next generation of aerospace engineers and keep beating the drum for Virginia as a great place to launch.
Virginia is part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, one of six sites the Federal Aviation Administration chose as UAV test ranges. Other MAAP partners are Maryland and New Jersey.