CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- The U.S. Navy is considering Wallops Island as its home base for the next generation of surveillance drones.
Business and government leaders gathered Tuesday in Chincoteague, as part of the Wallops Island Regional Alliance, to call upon the Navy to select the Wallops Flight Facility as the East Coast home base for the still-under-development MQ-4C Triton, according to media reports.
The new drones are intended to accomplish several tasks, including reconnaissance missions over ocean and coastal regions, without putting humans at risk. It was called "the first big step in unmanned aviation" by its manufacturer, Northrop Grumman.
The move could majorly stimulate the local economy, said Wallops Island Regional Alliance President Peter Bale.
"I like to refer to it as a Richter scale event," Bale said. "It would be phenomenal. 400 full-time jobs, 24-odd aircrafts here, a national security asset here on the East Coast for us. It would equate to 1,500 to 2,000 people moving to this area to support that program."
The commonwealth has already committed to spending $3.5 million to build a 3,500-foot runway for the testing of drones in protected airspace around the facility.
Capt. John P. Robinson III, who is chief of the Navy Surface Combat Systems Center at Wallops Island, is not involved with the Triton program, but said the facility is well-suited for testing unmanned vehicles.
"There is a lot of room and opportunity to test," Robinson said. "This is right in our mission set.
Wallops Island is one of three sites under consideration. Navy officials are expected to make their choice within months.
The initial operational capacity for the Tritons is now planned for 2018 with full operating capability hoped for in 2023.