Mississippi State University (MSU) is going to be flying higher than any other college in the country. Literally.
A partnership between the university and Aurora Flight Sciences will lead to the development of the hydrogen-fueled Orion High Altitude Long Loiter (HALL), an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that will be able to spend four days flying at altitudes of 65,000 feet performing missions for the military, NOAA, NASA and other customers.
MSU President Robert “Doc” Foglesong says the Orion HALL will give MSU a research tool virtually unmatched by any other university.
“Just one example of the benefits it will offer is the ability to track tropical storms in the Atlantic, collecting and analyzing high-quality data that can help predict a hurricane’s path,” Foglesong said.
Groundbreaking was recently held at the Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA) for the $3-million, 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facilities for Aurora Flights Sciences, which was incubated in the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory in MSU prior to moving out onto a 10-acre site at the airport. The company has leased a 6,400-square-foot hangar from GTRA and is converting that to a temporary office and training facility while building the new facility.
The company said initially 50 people will be employed at the plant. Aurora hopes to double its Mississippi employment in the next year and to reach 300 over the next three years as it solidifies orders for the Orion HALL. The company also plans to add an additional 60,000 square feet to their facility in the future.
When constructed, MSU will own and operate the first Orion HALL through its Raspet Flight Research Laboratory in Starkville. The university will use the aircraft for science missions for numerous government agencies. MSU already owns and operates six aircraft. The Orion HALL is expected to be a significant addition.
Dr. Anthony Vizzini, Bill and Carolyn Cobb Chair and head of aerospace engineering, MSU, said the university owns and operates airplanes both in order to conduct research and to teach students.
“We expect our faculty and students to be a part of this world,” Vizzini said. “Part of the aerospace program involves ownership and operation of our own aircraft. We always feel we are part of the real world. We use this as an opportunity to maintain our relevance.”
The Raspet Flight Research Laboratory at MSU was a significant factor attracting Aurora Flight Sciences to the Golden Triangle area. Vizzini said MSU provides unique opportunities to aviation companies like Aurora.
“We offer the ability to provide an environment to a company like this to come down to Mississippi, set up shop from day one, get involved in the community, and have access to researchers, research equipment and our own technology base, as well,” Vizzini said.
MSU benefits, as well, from being directly involved in cutting edge research in the field. Vizzini said it is always good to have the relevance of industry working so closely with researchers and students. Students can see and observe what is going on, and even be part of it. It can also provide work experience and contacts to get a job upon graduation. For example, one of their graduates is now employed by Aurora Flight Services.
The Orion HALL is designed to carry small payloads for ultra-long endurance surveillance missions. One of its attractions is that it is designed to be rugged enough to perform surveillance missions for the military and intelligence communities while remaining affordable for civilian agencies such as NOAA and NASA.
“Whether the mission is defense or science oriented, the watch word today is persistent surveillance,” said Aurora Flight Sciences president John S. Langford. “The combination of Orion HALL’s hydrogen propulsion system with a design that optimizes aircraft endurance will enable the Orion HALL to loiter over an area of interest for days on end.”
Because the aircraft is a small payload, high-altitude UAV, it is expected to complement, rather than compete with existing large-payload UAVs.
Aurora says that the Orion HALL will be in a class by itself. Chuck Wilkins, a spokesperson for Aurora, said that the Orion HALL is ahead of its time because it is designed to burn hydrogen, rather than traditional jet fuel, which allows the long-distance flying.
Wilkins said the Columbus Lowndes County Link and the state’s federal congressional delegation have been very helpful in attracting high-tech industry like this to the area.
The company is getting a $150,000 Development Infrastructure Program grant from the state, an $88,000 grant from the Tombigbee River Valley Water Management District to assist with site development work and a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to help with infrastructure and road improvements.
The Orion HALL, which has a rounded body and a wingspan of 110 feet, is expected to make its first flight in 2008. Production is expected to start in nine months.
Aurora Flight Sciences, a 17-year-old company specializing in UAVs technology for research, defense and homeland security organizations, has its corporate, engineering and prototype fabrication offices at the Manassas Regional Airport 30 miles west of Washington, D.C. Aurora also has manufacturing facilities in Bridgeport, W.Va., and a research and development facility in Cambridge, Mass.
For more information, visit the Web site www.aurora.aero.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.