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A UAS-mounted laser system will be used to measure water depth. The system will be tested at the Jeremiah Denton airport on Dauphin Island, which might seem an unlikely launch site for US Navy drones, but it’s going to happen later in 2017. According to one of the scientists leading the program, it’s a short-term research demonstration using small aircraft.

In mid-March, the County Commission gave approval for the MSU (Mississippi State University) 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.

According to al.com, 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.”

Daniel P. Eleuterio, of the Office of Naval Research, explained that the Naval Meteorological and Oceanographic Command 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.

Eleuterio said the flights off Dauphin Island will use a small aircraft called an Outlaw SeaHunter. The aircraft is 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.”