When bombs strike international terrorists in years to come, without putting a single U.S. service member in danger, it will be courtesy of Lowndes County.
Aurora Flight Sciences gave the public its first glimpse of the Orion unmanned aerial vehicle. The drone is designed to remain in flight for five days at 20,000 feet and is capable of carrying a payload of 1,000 pounds.
As Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., pointed out during the unveiling ceremony at Aurora”s production facility Monday, the Orion can be used to surveil drug traffickers in South America or terrorists in Afghanistan or deliver bombs.
Aurora CEO John Langford said, after the ceremony, some of the design and development on the Orion took place at Aurora”s Virginia, West Virginia and Massachusetts facilities, but the majority of the project was born in Mississippi.
“We”re a little company and it”s taken everything we”ve got to succeed. But the Orion”s home is here in Columbus. It”s where it”s been designed, built and put together,” he said.
The “little company,” however, is about to get a bit bigger. Aurora hopes to produce 10-20 Orion UAVs a year, which involves increasing employment at its Lowndes facility from 60 to as many as 300.
“It”s all about making defense more effective and affordable, which is critical in the sense of addressing the deficit issue, but at the same time building sustainable economic development here in the Golden Triangle,” said Langford.
Or, as Wicker put it, Aurora is “where national defense and job creation intersect.”
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who joined Wicker, along with District 1 Rep.-elect Alan Nunnelee at Aurora, reminisced in his remarks to the crowd about how the Orion program originally met a lukewarm reception from the Senate Appropriations Committee in Washington. But Wicker, he said, believed in the program from the start and pushed to secure the contract for the sake of Mississippi workers and U.S. soldiers all over the world.
Monday marked a milestone in that effort.
“Our state is justifiably proud of this national security asset manufactured in Mississippi with the capabilities our commanders on the ground say they need,” said Cochran.
The model presented to the crowd Monday at Aurora was the real deal, minus the electrical systems. Langford said the Orion may make its test flight around the Golden Triangle, although the Air Force, which is purchasing the machines, will make that call.
“The next step is integration and tests and to put all the systems onboard. The airplane could easily fly as early as next summer if the program continues on track, but we”ll follow the guidance of the Air Force,” he said.
Two-thirds of Aurora”s Lowndes workforce will focus on the Orion while the remaining third manufacture a sonobuoy launcher for the Navy”s MH-60R Seahawk helicopter. Sonobuoys are used to detect submarines.