PTA drone proposal detailed


Pohakuloa Training Area would host drone training flights for up to 12 weeks a year under a proposal to relocate a squadron of the unmanned aircraft from California to Hawaii.

The reconnaissance drones would be based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay on Oahu but also utilize training areas on Kauai and PTA on the Big Island, according to an environmental assessment completed last month.

The transfer of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron Three, based in Twentynine Palms, Calif., involves 12 Shadow and 45 Blackjack drones.

The squadron would begin to relocate as early as June with Blackjack drones being added early next year.

Both drone models use propeller engines and are launched with catapults, according to the EA. Neither have weapons.

The document says relocating the squadron would allow the Marines to achieve a balance in its capabilities in the Pacific region and help ensure soldiers are properly trained and equipped.

Lt. Col. Eric Shwedo, PTA commander, said the types of drones used at PTA help soldiers understand “what’s over the next ridgeline.”

“It’s important they get this training, especially at Pohakuloa,” he said. “It is one of the largest areas of restricted airspace in the area.”

The Marines have four drone squadrons attached to expeditionary forces headquartered in California, North Carolina and Louisiana, according to the EA. The Marines have an expeditionary force headquartered on Okinawa, but agreements between the United States and Japan do not allow the use of drones there.

Under the proposal, flight training would occur at PTA up to four times a year for three weeks at a time.

Flights of the Shadow and Blackjack drones would be limited to the restricted area which essentially encompasses PTA’s boundary.

According to the EA, drone flights have occurred in Hawaii since 2007.

Shwedo said military units based in Hawaii have flown both Shadow and Raven drones at PTA.

Shadows are flown there about five times a year, he said. The use of that model is limited to the restricted area.

Ravens are low-flying backpack drones and can be flown in Keamuku outside the restricted area, Shwedo said.

No live-fire exercises with drones have occurred, he said.

PTA is located on Saddle Road but motorists shouldn’t expect to see drones flying overhead, Shwedo said.

“They will stay well within restricted airspace,” he said. “You won’t see them over Saddle Road.”

The Cooper Airstrip was built at PTA in January 2010 to accommodate unmanned aircraft, according to the EA.

Training flights would require an Airspace Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration.

If the Shadow and Blackjack drones are given weapons capabilities, live-fire exercises would be limited to areas authorized for munitions training, according to the EA.

The document includes a finding of no significant impact, which means an environmental impact statement is not required.

The 301-page EA, dated March 2014, was published on the website of the state’s Office of Environmental Quality Control earlier this week.

To view the document, visit http://tinyurl.com/hawaiidrones.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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