When the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate set out to find the ideal partner for its new common unmanned aircraft demonstration range, the search led to Mississippi State University.
MSU’s success in building a statewide team to land a nationally significant DHS project not only reinforced the university’s mastery of aviation research but also helped boost Mississippi’s profile as a vital aerospace technology hub.
“Our state speaks aerospace, and we do it well — not just in traditional areas but also in cutting-edge technologies,” says Julie Jordan, MSU’s interim vice president for research and economic development. “Winning the designation as DHS’s Common UAS Test Site further enhances Mississippi’s prominence on the national stage along with MSU’s leadership in exciting new research frontiers. It’s a powerful message that’s creating a lot of high-quality jobs and bringing more aerospace-related business to Mississippi.”
After a highly competitive process, the MSU-led partnership was chosen in 2017 to operate the DHS Common Unmanned Aircraft Systems Site, a group of sites located primarily in southern and coastal Mississippi on government-owned land. The geographically diverse range contains around 2,000 square miles of restricted and warning airspace at altitudes up to 60,000 feet.
Ample, UAS-accessible airspace was just one of many assets brought to the table by MSU and the Mississippi partnership. Team members proved their ability to test, evaluate, validate and ensure the safety of UAS operations in mixed manned and unmanned aircraft environments.
DHS also was interested in the team’s ability to conduct test flights year-round over land and water — an advantage that supports the department’s efforts to safely and rapidly expand its UAS capabilities.
Project partners are the Mississippi National Guard’s Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, the Mississippi Air National Guard’s Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center, NASA’s Stennis Space Center, the Jackson County Port Authority and the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.
As the team’s overall lead and scientific evaluator, Mississippi State is in charge of supplying “hard data” on aircraft performance to help the DHS improve the safety, efficiency and capabilities of its current operations. Test scenarios include highway and rail disasters, hazardous material spill containment and cleanup, disaster response and relief, and wildlife monitoring and control, to name a few.
The team also conducts specialized evaluation and training exercises for DHS agencies. For example, they’re evaluating UAS technologies that may help the US Coast Guard find lost boats, and help Customs and Border Protection agents perform their duties more efficiently and safely.
“Our research for DHS gets to the heart of what we’re trying to do with UAS in all disciplines, which is removing humans from dangerous situations and letting the systems go in instead,” Brooks says. “For each mission scenario, our flight tests confirm which combinations of aircraft and sensors will do the very best job possible with today’s technology. Providing a service that has the potential to save human lives is one of the more gratifying aspects of our work.”
Brooks also serves as associate research director for the Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS Center of Excellence at Mississippi State – yet another MSU-led alliance that has earned national distinction for its UAS expertise.
For MSU students who are interested in aerospace careers, State’s UAS leadership provides unique opportunities to get directly involved in a variety of civilian, commercial and military research projects, many of which have far-reaching societal impacts.
In recent years, Brooks has seen dramatic increases in undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral enrollments in MSU’s aerospace programs — and the numbers continue to grow along with rewarding career opportunities that provide incentives for students to stay in Mississippi after graduation.