North Okaloosa STEM opportunities showcased for visiting dignitaries

BRIAN HUGHES Public Information Officer | City

CRESTVIEW — North Okaloosa County and the Crestview area’s seemingly limitless opportunities for technology innovation and instruction for the next generations of STEM engineers was in the spotlight recently.

A busload of local military technology specialists; local, state and county officials; representatives of Asian and Pacific Island nations; NASA; and U.S. Under Secretary of Transportation Joel Szabat joined a fact-finding tour of the area organized by local engineer and technology proponent Dr. Paul Hsu.

After touring south county facilities and companies, the afternoon’s focus was on Crestview Bob Sikes Airport’s Technology Air Park and its many opportunities for students to study the STEM subjects put to real-life applications. What he saw impressed Under Secretary Szabat.

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“After watching the students compete in the challenge today, I am sure the future is in good hands,” he said. “America will lead the world in innovation by any means so long as we have ambitious students.”

Demonstrations of an “autonomous impact protection vehicle” — a self-driving road crew protection escort truck developed by Fort Walton Beach-based Kratos Defense’s Unmanned Systems Division — and drone technology followed at the HSU Educational Foundation STEM Range near Laurel Hill.

Crestview Mayor J.B. Whitten and other city officials welcomed the visitors to the area, then enjoyed watching one of the first practical demonstrations on the range’s track that the city helped construct through a public-private partnership. The partnership in turn has opened the unrestricted airspace range to use by the Crestview Police and Development Services departments.

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After a hayride from the test track to the range’s 1,000-square-foot pavilion — during which Szabat joked that, “America’s lousy dirt roads are far superior to other countries’ dirt roads” — the 40-some guests enjoyed a barbecue lunch from Hub City Smokehouse and Grill while Crestview police officers and city planners demonstrated the range’s drone capabilities.

“Drones give these police officers and city officials a valuable bird’s-eye view of everything from accident and crime scenes to construction sites and street work zones,” HSU Foundation Director of Unmanned Training Mario Werth said as he provided commentary during the demos, which included loading and delivering a payload. “They are especially valuable if it’s a place where it’s too dangerous to send in people.”

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Before the meal, Okaloosa County Public Works Director Jason Autrey presented a brief review of the county’s infrastructure developments, including plans to address those dirt roads about which the under secretary joked.

The tour and demonstrations were part of a Feb. 14-15 weekend gathering of the educational partners that comprise the Innov8+ coalition. The Transforming Tomorrow’s Workforce event showcased the county’s STEM resources. After a STEM Community Day at the Emerald Coast Convention Center, the weekend culminated with a black-tie Fusion Gala 2020.