The Jeremiah Denton airport on Dauphin Island might seem an unlikely launch site for Navy drones, but it's going to happen later this year under an agreement recently approved by the Mobile County Commission.
Don't expect fireworks, however: According to one of the scientists leading the program, it's a short-term research demonstration using small aircraft that shouldn't create much distraction from Island life.
In mid-March, the County Commission approved a memorandum of understanding with the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University. It gave approval for the MSU program to conduct Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) flights from the Dauphin Island airport. MSU assured that the aircraft and their operation plans would be in full compliance with FAA regulations.
Among other clauses, the agreement specifies that "The planned UAS flight path will avoid overflight of populated areas on Dauphin Island, and be conducted in a manner that minimizes noise or other disturbance for Dauphin Island residents."
When contacted about the plan, MSU representatives said the project actually was being led by the Office of Naval Research, with the Raspet lab providing support.
Daniel P. Eleuterio of the Office of Naval Research said that at the end of May and beginning of June, the Naval Meteorological and Oceanographic Command, headquartered at the Stennis Space Center in coastal Mississippi, will hold a series of activities to display and evaluate UAS capabilities. As part of that, Eleuterio's program was invited to come to the area and display something it's been working on: The use of a UAS-mounted laser system to measure water depth.
"This is mostly a technology demonstration," Eleuterio said.
LIDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is similar to radar but uses light beams rather than radio waves. The Navy isn't the only operation that uses it to measure water depth: A NOAA site says it can be "used to acquire data in areas with complex and rugged shorelines where surface vessels cannot operate efficiently or safely because of rocks, kelp or breaking surf. Some examples of these areas include Alaska, the North Atlantic Coast and the Caribbean."
Eleuterio said the flights off Dauphin Island will use a small aircraft called an Outlaw SeaHunter. Powered by twin propeller engines, it has a wingspan of around 10 to 12 feet and twin tail booms linked by a horizontal stabilizer. It's built by Griffon Aerospace, a company based in the Huntsville area.
Griffon describes the Outlaw SeaHunter as a platform suitable for a wide variety of test and research missions, with a maximum takeoff weight in the 250- to 300-pound range and plenty of electrical power for whatever equipment it carries.
Eleuterio said it's not much bigger than some of the remote-control aircraft flown by hobbyists. "Once it's off the runway you can barely hear it," he said.
Eleuterio said because the flights off Dauphin Island are more a demonstration than a full research project, there likely won't be any direct payoff for area residents. Over the long term, in general, he said, such flights could lead to "a better understanding of coastal ecology and wetlands ecology."
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