Stennis Airport hopes to land drone operation

HANCOCK COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Hancock County is lobbying for a big part in the next frontier in aviation. Leaders are hoping to land an FAA research and development site for drones. Potentially, it's a $90 billion industry with hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide.

"The purpose of the test site is to figure out how to safely and ethically fly unmanned aerials systems in the national air space, just like a manned aircraft is flown," said James Poss, Retired Major General.

Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg and Stennis International Airport in Hancock County would be the Center of the UAV operation, with Picayune Municipal and Trent Lott International Airports playing supporting roles.

Stennis International Airport is already gearing up. It has teamed up with Selex Galileo, a global company located at the airport. Selex produces military and commercial drones in Europe but hopes to do some of that work in Hancock County.

Airport director Bill Cotter has already applied for a certificate of authorization from the FAA to test fly drones.

"It's an unmanned vehicle flying under a parachute with a pusher propeller. It looks like an office desk with a parachute and propeller. This system would be set-up to do post disaster cell phone repeater type work. This past week in Oklahoma, it can be launched from the back of a C-130 aircraft and provide cell phone coverage where systems have been knocked down," said Bill Cotter, Aviation Director at Stennis International Airport.

He and others say the commercial potential for drones is vast.

"The sky is literally the limit. When the government of Japan opened its air space up to unmanned vehicles, one of the first applications was to put unmanned crop spraying aircraft up. And that's taken over to such an extent that they don't have manned crop dusters anymore. I think it will revolutionize the search and rescue industry out there. I'm a boater out in the Gulf, and I can tell you I would much rather the Coast Guard come looking for me with ten unmanned vehicles that they can afford to buy verses one or two manned vehicles out there," explained Poss.

The test sites will study the effects on communities, the environment and how UAVs will share airspace with other aircraft.

"Mississippi has a whole bunch of advantages that I don't think a lot of the other competitors for this bid are going to have," Poss said. "We've got a large amount of air space located in areas that is very remote, where there is no chance of causing a safety problem. We've got a lot of open air space over the water over the Gulf, that's controlled by the Mississippi Air National Guard. We've got fantastic climate diversity."

South Mississippi is already home to drone manufacturing in Moss Point, some test flights at Camp Shelby and research at Mississippi State. The hope is that our area will land even more.

Thirty-eight states are competing for six drone testing sites. The FAA is expected to name the first site in late summer or early fall.

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