Mississippi is among 37 states vying to be one of six sites selected by the Federal Aviation Administration for testing of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
The testing is a prelude to integrating the remotely controlled aircraft into the nation’s general aviation system. If testing proves successful, the next step will be wide commercial use of the unmanned aircraft.
The Mississippi Development Authority hopes to leverage the state’s vast defense contracting base, including drone manufacturer Stark Aerospace in Columbus, to gain selection.
“Our next major submission is due to the FAA on May 6,” said Sally Williams, MDA spokeswoman.
She said the economic development agency is limited in what it can say about its bid until after it makes its May submission.
With Unnamed Aircraft Systems, or UAS, considered the next big thing in aerospace, the MDA concedes the competition will be intense.
Mississippi is already home to some UAS flight testing. The FAA two years ago authorized Stark Aerospace to fly the Heron UAS from Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA). Stark’s Heron testing is conducted within the traffic control area of GTRA.
The Heron is a Medium Endurance Long Altitude (MALE) UAS in use in 27 countries and has been flown by Stark’s Flight Services team in support of U.S. counter-narcotics operations.
The Heron’s strong safety record and built-in redundancies as well as its ability to do autonomous takeoffs and landings in up to 25 knot crosswinds influenced the FAA’s decision to grant the testing permit, Stark said.
“This is the next step as we continue to establish the Golden Triangle as the leader in the aerospace industry,” said Mike Hainsey, executive director of GTRA, in a press statement issued by Stark shortly after the 2011 FAA testing authorization.
GTRA is among only a few commercial service airports for which the FAA has authorized UAS operations.
Stark has a fully integrated hangar capable of both production acceptance and training operations. From the hangar, there is direct access to the runway at Golden Triangle Regional Airport, where the FAA has authorized Heron flights.
Stark produces the Heron and the Hunter MQ-5B Unmanned Aerial Systems at its high-tech production facility in Columbus.
The Hunter MQ-5B is a tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems (TUAS) that has flown more than 100,000 hours in support of the U.S. war against terrorism.
Despite the presence of Stark and other aerial defense contractors in the state, Mississippi could be a long shot, according to a ranking by Popular Science magazine, which listed Huntsville, Ala., as the lone location in the South likely to get serious consideration.
Here is the Popular Science ranking of what the magazine views as the seven strongest prospective sites and its brief analysis:
» San Diego — General Atomics, maker of the Predator Drone, is just one of many companies that provides San Diego with a sizable drone industry. The city’s industrial base, range of climates and easy flying conditions make San Diego a shoo-in.
» North Dakota — The state will probably get the bid, and it should. Testing drones in extreme winter conditions is important.
» Hancock Field, New York — Hancock will be an FAA test site, but it really shouldn’t. Having an important politician in U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer to tip the scales is how these things are done. But for all its charm, Hancock Field offers very little that isn’t matched and exceeded elsewhere.
» Sierra Vista, Az. — With a high volume of drone flights already taking place, southern Arizona has a lot to offer the FAA in crafting flight rules that accommodate both manned and unmanned aircraft. Sierra Vista offers good access to the border and air traffic control there is experienced with high-volume drone flights.
» Huntsville, Ala. — The city boasts an annual symposium on Unmanned Vehicle Systems, now in its 24th year. That is a strong sign of native talent and technical expertise, which elevates Huntsville’s FAA drone aspirations above those of the average region. It’s still not seen as enough to sway the FAA, however.
» Creech Air Force Base, NV. — Nevada has a long history of aviation testing, and IT expertise can feed drone technical development easily. That, combined with vast tracts of empty federal land and cleared airspace, allow for great testing possibilities.
» Dayton, Ohio — The FAA will need an average city to test drones in, and Dayton fits the bill. It’s large enough to present both challenges, like other air traffic, and opportunities, like enough customers to make taco drones viable. Dayton is expected to succeed in its bid.