HSU foundation, Lone Star to transform unmanned aircraft systems in Northwest Florida

Special to Gannett

FORT WALTON BEACH — The HSU Educational Foundation recently welcomed senior leadership representatives to Northwest Florida.

Visitors from the Lone Star UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Center of Excellence & Innovation at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and HSU are forming a master research partnership to develop the HSU Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence in Okaloosa County.

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The HSU Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence development is aimed at creating a highly trained and certified UAS workforce and providing UAS research, development, and testing of unmanned aircraft, sensors and related technologies for industry partners.

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Lone Star will assist the foundation in designing and implementing a UAS-focused schoolhouse to train and certify UAS aircrews, maintenance technicians and ecosystem developers, helping stimulate workforce development in Okaloosa County and creating a professional workforce supporting the rapidly growing UAS industry.

Both Unmanned Aircraft System Centers of Excellence and a potential connecting flight corridor are displayed on this map.


While Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has developed similar partnerships along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the project marks Lone Star’s first collaborative effort with an out-of-state educational entity to develop jointly branded UAS Flight Research and Testing capability, furthering the impact of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi’s work and innovation in UAS research.

“As a leading research center dedicated to the innovation and safety of Unmanned Aircraft Systems throughout the nation, Lone Star UAS is committed to offering its intellectual capital to further UAS technology,” stated Dr. Ahmed Mahdy, vice president of Research and Innovation at Lone Star UAS. “The expertise and knowledge of Lone Star, along with our data-driven processes, have proven to be an asset to this community and beyond and we’re enthusiastic about this new partnership.”

This is the HSU Innovation Institute North at Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview.

Key objectives of the partnership include creating a trained and certified UAS workforce to fill the gap in qualified workers within the UAS industry; attracting economic development in Northwest Florida by becoming a recognized name in UAS workforce development and R&D efforts; supporting the development of UAS enabled Disaster Response solutions for Northwest Florida; and attracting aerospace industry leaders to conduct UAS technology development and testing on HSU STEM Range and test facilities. 

Initial tasks for Lone Star include developing a comprehensive plan to accomplish each of the objectives while providing a base for the future HSU UAS Center of Excellence. Lone Star will also construct and design an approximately eight-mile Beyond Visual Line of Sight UAS corridor between the HSU Innovation Institute – North, located at Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, and the HSU STEM Range in Northern Okaloosa County. 

The regional airspace and location of the HSU STEM Range with proposed flight corridor from HSU Innovation Institute North is illustrated on this map.

Jason Blevins, Lone Star’s Associate Director for UAS, is leading the project for Lone Star, working in collaboration with the HSU Educational Foundation Executive Director Amanda Negron and staff, as well as key stakeholders and potential partners. 

“The design and construct of the HSU Center fills multiple gaps we’re experiencing within the UAS industry,” Blevins stated. “The first gap is the lack of a highly trained and certified UAS workforce that keeps pace with the increasing demand for UAS technology. The second gap is the availability of instrumented UAS test flight ranges to enable the research, development, and testing of emerging aircraft, autonomy, sensors, and ecosystem elements of the industry.”

Blevins pointed out the HSU Center is strategically located in an environment surrounded by U.S. Air Force technology developers, civilian contracting companies and industry partners who are growing their demands for UAS.

This is a picturesque view of the 400-acre HSU STEM Range in North Okaloosa with open fields, diverse topography and an outdoor lab area.

“It also helps that it’s sunny in Florida, and you can fly an unmanned aircraft pretty much year-round,” Blevins added. 

HSU Educational Foundation was founded by Dr. Paul Hsu, a successful immigrant tech entrepreneur and community leader. Hsu has continued to give back to his community in support of students and education. He later developed the foundation to join with those who share his vision to grow the mission and encourage success for more students. 

“This unique public private partnership is established with a driving mission to advance UAS innovation and develop robust expansion of research, testing and training capabilities across the Gulf Coast and within the region of Northwest Florida,” Hsu stated. “By merging the synergies of our common vision while combining the diverse networks, resources and capabilities of each team, this effort will provide the support mechanism to make exciting leaps as a UAS Center of Excellence.” 

Lone Star expects the UAS research project to be complete in March 2023.