Unmanned boats in Wallops' future?

(Delmarva Now) -- The next wave of construction at Wallops Flight Facility may take it into new frontiers of unmanned technology and space cargo delivery.

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority is working with state lawmakers on developing a facility for unmanned waterborne vehicles and a new satellite assembly building.

State Delegate Robert Bloxom Jr. and state Sen. Frank Wagner say $20 million has been set aside in the recently approved budget to cover the cost of the upgrades.

Bloxom said at a recent gathering of business leaders in Chincoteague that the funding is spread out over four years in the authority's parent agency, the Department of Transportation.

“I look at the Eastern Shore as economic development opportunities. How can we continue to grow the economy on the Eastern Shore?" Wagner said. “The potential is so much larger at Wallops Island.”

Both new facilities could drum up more business and create more jobs at Wallops, proponents say.

Long home to a NASA rocket range, the facility has expanded in recent years into the commercial sector with a $150 million spaceport for private launches and a 3,000-foot runway for aerial drones. It is perhaps best known as the main base of Orbital ATK's Antares program, which ferries supplies to the International Space Station.

Many of the corporate clients for the facility's aerial capabilities also have expressed interest in using unmanned boats and submarines, said Dale Nash, executive director of the Space Flight Authority.

When it comes to drones, “you’re going to have land, you’re going to have water and you’re going to have air," he said.

The authority is mulling retrofitting an existing dock on the island and dredging a deeper channel in the area to accommodate the unmanned boats or subs, Nash said. At least a pair of other locations toward the north side of the island also are possibilities.

The unmanned technology is useful in a variety of applications, including inspections of holds on large ships, analyzing aging bridges and surveying underwater pipelines, he said.

The state also is hoping to construct a large warehouse for processing satellites. Wallops currently has the capability to process payloads, but the complexity of the task requires the use of three different buildings on the campus, Nash said.

Bringing those tasks under one roof would bring the facility on par with its competition at other NASA space outposts in Florida, California and Alaska.

“You want to compete with as nice a facility as others have and as secure a facility as others have," he said.

The processing center could be used by the government or by private entities.

The funding also is expected to finance support buildings, such as laboratories and offices, for the new drone runway and dock.

Delmarva Now


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