Mississippi is bidding for one of six sites nationwide to test unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones.
The state submitted its proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration May 6, according to a Mississippi Development Authority.
State officials say the FAA should choose Mississippi because it has three manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as a flight laboratory at Mississippi State University. Congress has directed the FAA to use test sites to determine how to integrate current air traffic with unmanned vehicles. Today, such drones can only be flown with special permission, and can’t be used for commercial purposes.
“There’s a lot of potential out there for commercial use of unmanned aerial systems,” said Manning McPhillips, the chief administrative officer of the MDA. “This is a huge growth area in the aerospace industry.”
FAA spokesman Les Dorr said 50 sites in 37 states had indicated they would submit proposals. The FAA won’t finance the test, Dorr said, meaning bidders have to find some way to pay. McPhillips said Mississippi can use most of its existing assets at no cost, including airspace at Camp Shelby, Stennis Space Center and Gulf of Mexico test ranges controlled by the Air National Guard Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport.
“The beauty of this is there is no upfront cost to the state,” McPhillips said.
Mississippi State University would collect data from tests and conduct research, said David Shaw, the university’s vice president for research and development. He said research projects could include finding ways to improve communication between ground controllers and aircraft, encrypting control signals to prevent outsiders from hijacking a drone, and studies of how to improve the airworthiness of drones.
MDA officials said Camp Shelby’s more than 10 years of experience in safely operating drones is a big plus for Mississippi’s plan. They also cite the airspace over the Gulf of Mexico and MSU’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory.
The idea is that the state would lay out the welcome mat for researchers who need time and space to fly their craft. Right now, air time in the United States is severely limited, said MDA’s Christine Pate.
“The fact that you can’t test is stymieing this industry that’s getting ready to explode,” she said.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that the unmanned aircraft industry would create more than 70,000 jobs in the first three years after the FAA allows normal commercial operations.
Today, Mississippi has about 250 jobs in the sector, including Northrop Grumman’s assembly facility in Moss Point, as well as Stark Aerospace and Aurora Flight Sciences at Golden Triangle Regional Airport near Columbus. Another 250 jobs are promised in the next two years, McPhillips said. But officials hope testing would allow them to multiply that figure.