Mississippi Is New Base of Homeland Security Drone Testing

 - April 26, 2017, 12:06 PM
Shown is the entrance to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security complex in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has chosen Mississippi as the new base of a demonstration program for small drones that originally started in Oklahoma. After a competitive selection process, the department decided that Mississippi’s multi-site offering was best for its mission of testing unmanned aircraft for DHS component agencies.

“We evaluated regions using a set of standard questions and requests, and a detailed qualitative and quantitated evaluation of each region,” the DHS said in response to an AIN inquiry. Based on that process, the department “selected Mississippi (via several specific sites) as the most compatible to support demonstrations, testing and training on unmanned aircraft systems.”  

Under a program it called Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (RAPS), the DHS Science and Technology (S&T) directorate started evaluating drones weighing less than 25 pounds in 2012, choosing an Oklahoma State University site near Elgin, Okla., within the restricted airspace of Fort Sill. The evaluations included operations at “Liberty City,” a simulated urban environment at the U.S. Army base.

Announcing Oklahoma’s selection in June 2012, Gov. Mary Fallin (R) said the state expected the program focused on evaluating drones for uses including mapping, search and rescue and responding to fires and radiological and chemical incidents would attract an overall investment of $1.4 million in its first year and last at least three years.

In a spring 2015 report, however, the governor’s unmanned aerial systems council said the program “has been temporarily halted in recent months due to the re-interpretation of policy from the Department of Defense, specifically the Department of the Army, in the use of Fort Sill restricted airspace by DHS for the RAPS program.” The council expected the Army and the DHS would forge new agreements, but noted that the DHS was also working with the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct part of the RAPS program at Chilocco, Okla. But Elgin remained “the preferred site” for drone testing.

The governor’s council also recommended that the state work with Oklahoma’s delegation in Congress to make RAPS a program of record within the next DHS authorization bill.

Mississippi’s congressional delegation and Mississippi State University (MSU) at Starkville jointly announced that state’s selection by the DHS on April 19. The selection represented a second significant win for the state in the area of unmanned aircraft systems. The FAA announced in May 2015 that an MSU-led coalition would serve as the agency’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) center of excellence. The state has also affiliated with the Alaska-based Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, one of six FAA-designated drone test ranges.

Expected to begin operations this fall, the DHS drone demonstration range in Mississippi will use 2,000 square miles of restricted airspace up to an altitude of 60,000 feet, mainly in the state’s southern and coastal regions. Multiple sites will participate, including the Mississippi National Guard’s Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center buffer zones and Singing River Island, a former naval base in the Mississippi Sound off Pascagoula.

The DHS S&T directorate “realized a need for DHS to consolidate its demonstrations and testing of unmanned aircraft systems to prioritize flight time and reduce the overall cost to taxpayers,” the department explained in an email. “We spent a year working with federal stakeholders to identify a region where we could best accommodate the needs of the various DHS components and the DHS S&T First Responders Group, including terrain (desert, elevated regions and forest) to simulate border regions, deep water for ship operations and city environments for search and rescue and other operations.” Formed in 2010, the First Responders Group is a collaboration involving the DHS and public safety associations and organizations representing law enforcement, emergency medical services and firefighting departments nationally.

“This entire effort was undertaken to satisfy S&T’s major function to provide applied technology that meets the components’ needs at an affordable cost,” the DHS added.