After a highly competitive review process, the Department of Homeland Security selected Mississippi as a new base of operations for its drones, and much of the evaluation of how to best to use the devices will be done in South Mississippi.
Mississippi State University will lead the major research-and-development project for the department’s Science and Technology Directorate, the university and the state’s congressmen announced Wednesday.
Demonstration of and research into small unmanned aerial systems, known as drones, will be conducted at several Mississippi sites, along with 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace over land and water, at altitudes up to 60,000 feet, according to the press release. Operations are expected to begin in the fall.
Sites that will be used are Camp Shelby, which is the Army National Guard’s national drone-training center; buffer zone areas at Stennis Space Center, which is used for Department of Defense special-operations training; and the maritime environment accessible from the U.S. Coast Guard facilities on Singing River Island in Jackson County.
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“Mississippi has a number of unique assets that facilitate unmanned aircraft test flights that aren’t found in many other places, and we can fly year-round,” said Dallas Brooks, director of MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, who will lead the demonstration-range team.
He said the already highly tested drones will be used and evaluated in a variety of simulated scenarios, such as border protection, finding people after a disaster (flood, fire and earthquake), highway and rail accidents and containment of hazardous-materials spills.
In most cases, people in South Mississippi won’t notice anything is happening or be aware of the exercises, he said.
Those involved in the project’s partnership are the Mississippi National Guard’s Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, the Mississippi Air National Guard’s Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center, NASA’s Stennis Space Center, the Jackson County Port Authority and the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.
The congressional delegation said in a letter to Homeland Security last fall that the state has the facilities and is available immediately for the agency’s missions, which they said include border security, maritime security and counter-UAS operations.
“Mississippi has made supporting unmanned technologies a statewide priority and is home to numerous existing UAS operators, manufacturers and researchers,” said U.S. Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker and U.S. Reps. Bennie Thompson, Gregg Harper, Steven Palazzo and Trent Kelly.
Wednesday’s announcement is an indicator of the continued growth of the state’s aerospace-technology industry. In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration selected Mississippi State University to operate a new National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. In 2016, Mississippi became a full member in the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, one of seven FAA unmanned aircraft system test sites.