Drones grow SSC science repertoire
In the 1960s South Mississippi began working in the new field of space exploration
and later oceanography, now unmanned systems has been added to its impressive
science portfolio...

Lisa Monti
August 2016

A federal facility best-known for testing huge space rocket engines has added to its
repertoire over the years. The most recent capability is in a field growing in leaps and
bounds: unmanned systems.

And a recent Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decision to expand the restricted
air space over NASA’s Stennis Space Center (SSC) promises to make it a key activity.

“The expansion will add to our ability to support the emerging unmanned systems
industry, and it positions Stennis as an ideal destination for companies looking to
create jobs,” said Gov. Phil Bryant, who also said the expansion will enhance SSC’s
rocket testing mission and lead to more innovation.

Since it was established in the 1960s to test Apollo rocket engines for lunar missions,
SSC has expanded beyond its propulsion role to host numerous government
agencies and private companies involved in aerospace, oceanography and other
fields. So it’s not surprising the center again is on the leading edge of the
development of unmanned civilian and military systems.

Today at SSC activities with an unmanned systems spin include the recently
established National Oceans and Applications Research Center, Innovative Imaging
and Research, and the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research
Excellence. In addition, the Navy, the largest tenant at Stennis Space Center, is
expanding its development and use of unmanned systems in support of naval

Here’s a closer look at each:

The National Oceans and Applications Research Center is a private, not-for-profit
enterprise chartered by the State of Mississippi in 2014 to shine a spotlight on new
technologies and unmanned vehicles to monitor the environment from space to the
seafloor. The goal is to apply the knowledge and equipment to restoring the state’s
coastal natural resources and enhance the Mississippi Coast’s economy.

NOARC works with a network of partners including private companies, state and
federal agencies, Mississippi research universities and non-government
organizations to eventually apply the innovations to other areas in the Gulf Coast
region. One ongoing project is mapping Mississippi’s oyster resources using new
technologies in support of the Governor’s Oyster Restoration and Resiliency Council
to restore the industry.

NOARC will work in the future with the state Port at Gulfport to show how useful
unmanned surface maritime vehicles can be for monitoring the port’s environment,
examine access to the port and analyze safety hazards.

David Brannon, NOARC general manager, said the port project is a proving ground
that will help restore and improve at all coastal ports.

“The new technology will emphasize unmanned maritime systems and new sonar
instrumentation to map in great detail harbor and channel approaches and any
obstacles present that could affect new construction in the port,” Brannon said.

Innovative Imaging and Research is a woman-owned research and development
business that became the first in South Mississippi to get the OK from the FAA to fly
unmanned aerial vehicles under 200 feet for commercial purposes. The FAA limit is
400 feet.

I2R flies UAVs into out-of-the-way spaces and in areas considered unsafe for people
to get into so its cameras can capture detailed features. The ultra-high resolution
images are used for precision mapping and other uses.

The UAV flights help the I2R team, led by Mary Pagnutti, its president, and Dr. Bob
Ryan, chief technical officer, to develop technology for more scientifically quantitative
images and video. They formed the company in 2007 after supplying instrument
calibration services to NASA’s satellite and aircraft remote sensing program.

“We are only just beginning to see the potential of what we can accomplish by
imaging from UAVs. Our imaging technology is giving scientists detailed information
over areas that may be unsafe or difficult to travel through so they can better
understand important ecosystems and related restoration efforts, in a cost effective
manner,” Pagnutti said.

I2R officials say the HDR video captured from a UAV could be used for monitoring
environmental sites such as strip mines. NASA recently awarded I2R a contract to
further develop HDR high speed video technology that NASA will use to record rocket
propulsion tests.

I2R develops and customizes cameras for high-tech industries, government agencies
and universities that need high quality imagery for scientific and engineering
applications. I2R also calibrates cameras at its SSC site and develops customized
image processing algorithms and custom instruments.

“We have unique capabilities that enable us to generate calibrated images that
improve scientists’ abilities to detect real change on the ground independent of when
the data was collected − time of day and time of year, and the amount of haze − or
particulates in the sky,” Pagnutti said.

The Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence, led by
Mississippi State University, is an international network of 22 research universities
and 110-plus partners in industry and government. The alliance is the FAA’s Center
of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

ASSURE’s goal is to apply members’ research to help the FAA make rules and set
procedures to ensure the safety of unmanned aircraft systems flying in the nation’s
skies. Researchers are looking into noise standards for drones, collision avoidance
and training pilots. Their findings will aid in integrating drones into the nation’s airport
systems without interfering with manned aircraft.

“The ASSURE program truly is leading the way in FAA research to safely integrate
UAS into the national airspace,” said Executive Director Marty Rogers, a native of
Fulton, Miss., and a U.S. Air Force veteran.

Rogers said that the program has more than 60 proposed research projects under
review and in consideration with the FAA. The program is currently limited to funding
directly tied to ASSURE research and matching funding from partners, totaling
between $10 million and $20 million per year, but MSU has been approached to help
provide needed UAS professional services and research to other sponsors, and is
currently exploring mechanisms to support these requests.

“There really is still quite a small contingent of people and organizations that are
considered experts in this field, and the ASSURE program is fortunate to have
outstanding representatives of the technology as its core team ... really the best of
the best,” Rogers said.

Naval oceanographers rely on unmanned systems to gather information for the fleet.
Officials with the Naval Oceanography organization at SSC see even more use and
development of the unmanned aerial, surface and undersea systems in the future.
The systems are vital to collecting information from the  environment to enable
military commanders to make decisions in the physical battlespace in, on and above
the world’s oceans.

“Naval Oceanography has more than two decades of experience operating
unmanned systems,” said Dr. Bill Burnett, deputy commander and technical director
for the Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command. “Our strategy
is to advance our own unmanned capabilities, while sharing our expertise and
experience to accelerate and enhance the capabilities of other unmanned system
stakeholders in government, industry, universities, academia and our international

The Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, with headquarters at SSC, is
a worldwide organization providng environmental information to help Naval and joint
forces operate more safely and effectively and make better decisions faster than the
adversary. The headquarters directs and oversees the collection, processing and
exploitation of accurate, relevant and timely oceanographic, meteorological,
hydrographic, and precise time and astrometric information.

In addition to the command’s headquarters, five subordinate commands are at SSC:
the Naval Oceanographic Office, Naval  Oceanography Operations Command, Fleet
Survey Team, Naval Oceanography Mine Warfare Center and Naval Oceanography
Anti-Submarine Warfare Center.

Stennis also is home to the Naval Research Laboratory, the NOAA National Data
Buoy Center and the University of Southern Mississippi Marine Science program. All
have broad expertise in unmanned system tactics, techniques and procedures.

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