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Think You’ve Seen Drones Overhead? You Could Be Right

The Washington area has no less than eight bases where drones can land.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk, one of the drones that can be found at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Think you’ve seen any odd-looking planes overhead lately? Like the kind with no windows that help blow up terrorists? Maybe you’re not imagining things.

There are eight bases in Maryland and Virginia that do or could serve as takeoff and landing points for the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles, according to a recent Pentagon report. But before Washingtonians declare bragging rights, take note: That’s just 8 out of 110 in the United States.

In Maryland, bases with the potential to accommodate the airborne robots, which are most famous for their secretive exploits over Pakistan, are the Naval Air Station Patuxent River and the nearby Webster Naval Outlying Field. In Virginia, there are six bases. The two in the greater Washington metropolitan area are Fort A.P. Hill, in Bowling Green, and Marine Corps Base Quantico. Sorry, DC: You’re officially droneless. For now.

Right now, the unmanned planes have to fly within restricted airspace. But the drones need more room to spread their wings: The military services want to start testing experimental aircraft, and to do that, they need to be able to fly drones beyond the restricted areas surrounding many bases now. Airspace restrictions will soon be loosening for civilian craft, too, so the skies are going to get crowded.

If you haven’t seen the drones in the air, you may have seen pictures of one of them on the ground. The unmanned aerial vehicle that crashed in a marsh near Salisbury, Maryland, this week took off from Patuxent.

The local drone fleet runs the gamut of shapes and sizes. Three bases are equipped to handle the RQ-7B Shadow, a smaller aircraft that takes off with the aid of a catapult. And at Patuxent, there’s the big RQ-4 Global Hawk, a surveillance workhorse. (That’s what crashed in the marsh.)

And fear not: The dreaded MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, which wield death from above with targeted missiles, aren’t on the list. In fact, all the drones that would be flying in and out of Virginia and Maryland bases are designed for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The new drone report was first disclosed by InsideDefense.com. Secrecy expert Steven Aftergood had a useful writeup of the potential and known drone bases across the country.

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