FAA picks Mississippi State to lead unmanned aircraft center

FAA picks Mississippi State to lead unmanned aircraft center


STARKVILLE — The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that Mississippi State University will lead a team of 13 universities in running a new national center to research unmanned aerial vehicles.

The National Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems could signify that Mississippi’s effort to become a bigger player in the rapidly expanding world of drones is nearing liftoff.

The Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE) is supposed to help the FAA find ways to safely combine drones with current manned aircraft. The research areas initially will include technology to allow aircraft to detect and avoid each other, how to fly safely at low altitudes, and how to work with air traffic control.

“We expect this team will help us to educate and train a cadre of unmanned aircraft professionals well into the future,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The FAA expects the center to begin research by September and be fully operational by January 2016. Congress has put up $5 million so far to fund the effort, with the universities planning to match the money.

“This has been a six-year effort for Mississippi State and three years for our partner universities. We picked our team because they know unmanned systems and they know the FAA. That will make it easier to turn UAS research into FAA rules quickly,” retired Air Force General James Poss, who leads MSU’s team, said in a statement.

Research areas initially will include detect-and-avoid technology, low-altitude operations safety and compatibility with air traffic control operations. The idea is to maximize the potential of drones while minimizing changes to current manned aircraft rules.

U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said the alliance is meant to be the nation’s top civilian academic center for research and policy development related to unmanned aircraft.

“Unmanned systems are here to stay and this national center will help ensure that they are used to improve American security and productivity, while protecting privacy,” Cochran said in a statement.

MSU said the center’s research will be concentrated at the Raspet Flight Research Lab on its Starkville campus, as well as a base at the Stennis Space Center to use airspace over the Gulf of Mexico, and in Mississippi’s Delta region for learning about drone uses in precision agriculture.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects the industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic impact in the first decade after the FAA allows normal commercial operations.

Today, Mississippi has about 250 jobs in the sector, including Northrop Grumman Corp.’s assembly facility in Moss Point, as well as Stark Aerospace and Aurora Flight Sciences at Golden Triangle Regional Airport near Columbus. State officials hope the research effort multiplies that figure. Gov. Phil Bryant said he was “thrilled with the FAA’s decision.”

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