Phil Bryant says the sky (and the Gulf floor) is the limit

Gov. Phil Bryant on Thursday signed an executive order creating the Ocean Task Force, an umbrella group of business, academic, military and government interests to promote the Coast as a research and development testing ground for unmanned craft for the sea and air.

The task will have representatives from the University of Southern Mississippi, the Navy, Congress, the Department of Marine Resources and an array of other government agencies. It will deliver to Bryant within 120 days a master plan on how the Coast can attract unmanned craft builders and operators, a release from Bryant’s office said. It also will recommend how to develop and train a workforce to build and operate the unmanned craft.

The task force, Bryant said, won’t cost anything.

“Everyone’s working on a volunteer basis, so there will be no per diem, no cost into it,” he said. “What we’re bringing together is those entities that exist currently and putting them under an umbrella so we can have what I call co-opertition. We’re in competition with each other but we have to cooperate. They already have their offices; we won’t have to pay salaries or retirement. They are here because they are dedicated to this belief.”

Bryant signed the order surrounded by members of the new task force and a variety of airborne and undersea drones that lined a sweltering hangar at the Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfoprt. Those craft were part of the Gulf of Mexico Unmanned Systems Operational Demonstration that’s been going on the past two days.

“Maybe next year the technology showcase will include air conditioning,” Bryant joked.

Bryant proposes using the newly trained workforce to support the Departments of Defense, Commerce and Homeland Security, NASA and the DMR.

“You’ve heard it said many times, and I think it is true, that we know more about outer space than the bottom of the ocean,” Bryant said. “Less than a third of it has been mapped. Imagine, if you will hundreds if not thousands of unmanned vessels that can stay underwater for an unlimited period of time to do mapping, monitoring, and provide the eyes and ears for sailors on our warships, following them into harm’s way. I hope leading that effort will be some of the testing and training that occurs on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Monty Graham, director of USM’s School of Ocean Science and Technology, which offers training through its unmanned maritime systems programs, will be the chairman of the task force.

“If we do this right, we all win,” he said. “It builds an environment for a well-trained technologically sound workforce. I think this is an awesome opportunity for the Mississippi Gulf Coast to build on a rich history of shipbuilding and maritime commerce.”