East Hawaii News

Military Drone Training Planned for Big Island Saddle

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The skies above the Big Island’s saddle region will be among several Hawaii testing sites for military drones beginning as early as this summer, the US Marine Corps said in a document released Monday.

According to a final environmental assessment issued Monday, the Corps is planning to relocate a total of 57 of the unmanned aircraft, along with 274 active-duty Marine Corps and Navy support personnel, from Twentynine Palms, Calif., to Oahu.

The transfer of the USMC Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron Three to Marine Corps Base Hawaii Kaneohe Bay could begin as early as June.

Training would be conducted primarily in military restricted airspace over the Kaneohe base and Wheeler Army Air Field on Oahu, over the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, and over the US Army’s Pohakuloa Training Area on Saddle Road on the Big Island.

Twelve RQ-7B “Shadow” reconnaissance drones will be relocated with the support personnel. Delivery of 45 RQ-21A “Blackjack” aircraft is scheduled for 2015.

The relocation is necessary to address a deficiency in the Marine Corps’ capabilities in the Pacific region and to ensure that “Marine forces are sufficiently manned, trained, and equipped to meet any crisis or conflict,” the environmental study said.

The Marine Corps plan is apparently separate from an announcement from the FAA late last year that Hawaii, Oregon and Alaska would comprise one of six regional test sites located across the country where researchers will look at how to safely integrate drones into US airspace.

The RQ-221A Blackhawk drone. Source: USMC final environmental assessment.

The RQ-221A Blackhawk drone. Source: USMC final environmental assessment.

The Marine Corps has issued a “finding of no significant impact” for the relocation project, which means preparation of a more detailed environmental impact statement is not necessary.

However, an Airspace Certificate of Authorization for the drone training must be obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration to prevent conflicts between commercial and military aircraft, and between manned and unmanned aircraft, the EA said.

Military use of drones is already being carried out in Hawaii.

The study said that the Army began using unmanned aerial systems at PTA in 2004, with the most recent deployment in January 2011.

Besides its Bradshaw Army Airfield, PTA has an airfield known as Cooper Airstrip designed specifically for drone use. The 1,004-foot strip was completed in January, 2010.

The Shadow weighs 186 pounds and a wingspan of 14 feet, while the Blackjack weighs 135 pounds and has a wingspan of 16 feet.

Both are catapult-launched and have a range of about 86 miles and a ceiling of about 18,000 feet.

Both the Shadow and Blackjack are used for reconnaissance, although the Shadow is capable of carrying and dropping a mortar.


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