Today, Gov. John Bel Edwards joined Assistant Secretary John Fleming of the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Terrebonne Parish President Gordon Dove and Houma-Terrebonne Airport officials to announce a $1.35 million airport infrastructure grant from the EDA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The grant will fund taxiway, access road, ramp and utility improvements for an undeveloped 10-acre parcel at the Houma-Terrebonne Airport, which will establish a Gulf of Mexico Center of Excellence for Large-Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or L-UAS. Gov. Edwards signed an executive order at the event designating the airport as Louisiana’s L-UAS site with the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA. Future improvements will include a new 40,000-square-foot hangar that will house automated navigation systems for unmanned aircraft flying the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas, hurricane reconnaissance, coastal protection, homeland security, research and military missions.
“We are most excited by this announcement for its potential to provide new value for our oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico and along our coast,” Gov. Edwards said. “Louisiana has long been a leader in subsea technology in the offshore energy industry. Now, we will be at the cutting-edge of aerial technology. By joining our education, government and private-sector partners, we can make Louisiana a true leader in unmanned aircraft technology to tackle many of our biggest challenges in the energy, security and military sectors.”
At full development, the L-UAS Center of Excellence will create 150 new jobs, retain 70 jobs and generate $50 million in new private investment, according to EDA estimates. Louisiana Economic Development estimates the project will result in an additional 191 new indirect jobs, for a total of more than 340 jobs in the Bayou Region.
Wednesday’s event took place at the super-base hangar of helicopter transport company, ERA Group Inc., which will additionally provide nearby temporary space for the new unmanned aircraft center. Fueled by the energy sector, the Houma-Terrebonne Airport ranks No. 1 in the world for the total number of helicopter flights per year.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said, “The Trump Administration is working diligently to empower innovators who fuel job creation in communities across the nation. Having UAS operations on airport facilities in the Gulf Coast will help attract new businesses to the area and generate significant economic activity for the state of Louisiana.”
Also at the event, Louisiana Tech University’s Dr. Sumeet Dua, who oversees research and partnerships for the Ruston school, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with airport commission Secretary-Treasurer Joshua Alford to establish Louisiana Tech’s Department of Professional Aviation as a formal flight training and operations partner at the L-UAS Center of Excellence.
Similar MOUs are in place with Fletcher Technical Community College to train avionics, sensor and logistics technicians, along with airframe, powerplant and ground equipment mechanics; and with Nicholls State University to provide Big Data analytics, integration of high-speed, real-time sensors, and development of automated platforms for unmanned aircraft.
“The Houma-Terrebonne Airport looks forward to participating in the development of this new dimension in air service for the local area and the Gulf of Mexico,” said Secretary-Treasurer Joshua Alford of the Houma-Terrebonne Airport Commission. “There are many missions that can be served by highly automated, optionally piloted, and fully autonomous unmanned aircraft, and the Houma-Terrebonne Airport is excited to be in the forefront of this technological advancement.”
The South Central Planning and Development Commission, based in Gray, Louisiana, guided regional efforts to secure the EDA grant, along with the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority and Terrebonne Parish officials.
“It is imperative for Terrebonne Parish and Louisiana to move to the future of unmanned aircraft,” Parish President Gordon Dove said. “This will be a major economic tool for offshore and onshore transportation of goods and services to meet the ever-increasing demands of delivery at an economic price.”
Along with other utilities and infrastructure work, the grant will fund the installation of high-performance data lines connected to LONI, the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative for supercomputing applications. Unmanned helicopters and unmanned fixed-wing aircraft will be monitored and controlled from the new 40,000-square-foot hangar, which will be equipped with highly automated, artificial intelligence systems.
The $1.35 million EDA grant will be matched by $337,500 in local funds, chiefly from the Houma-Terrebonne Airport Commission, and the airport is pursuing additional funding solutions with the State of Louisiana’s Department of Transportation and Development; with the FAA; and with private-sector partners. In addition to Era Helicopters, private partners include Aurora Flight Sciences LLC, 2SF LLC, COTS Technology LLC and The Advocacy Partners LLC.
Airport officials estimate the L-UAS Center of Excellence hangar could be in place within two years.