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Taking flight: Company chooses Wise airport to expand testing of optionally piloted aircraft

Southwest Virginia Bureau • Aug 3, 2016 at 9:56 AM

WISE — Aurora Flight Sciences has announced it will expand operational testing of its Centaur Optionally Piloted Aircraft at Wise County’s Lonesome Pine Airport.

According to company officials, Aurora seeks to continue advancing the Virginia Unmanned Systems Commission’s progress toward making Virginia a leader in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry, while also helping to establish Wise County as a UAS research, development and operational hub.

The company’s Centaur OPA resembles a conventional twin-engine light aircraft modified to be flown by an on-board pilot or in “drone mode” controlled by on-the-ground operators, with the pilot on board for safety.

The company said some of the jobs already targeted for the Centaur OPA while based out of Lonesome Pine would include mapping and surveying, predicting and detecting forest fires, performing large area inspections on roads, railroads, power lines and waterways, minerals and vegetation mapping, and conducting emergency-management operations.

“Aurora is poised to ensure Virginia takes the lead in the introduction of large, unmanned aerial systems operation in the National Airspace System, and Wise County would be a great place to expand our capabilities and create jobs,” said Jeff Harlan, the company’s Centaur program director.

The company said it intends to begin Centaur OPA flight operations out of Lonesome Pine early next year. In addition to gravity measurement collection missions for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the company plans to make the Centaur OPA available for state geo-spatial data collection work and other contracted services, including support for Mountain Empire Community College’s planned aerial drone geo-spatial courses.

Headquartered in Manassas, Aurora operates production plants in Bridgeport, W.Va., and Columbus, Miss. The company also has R&D facilities in Cambridge, Mass., Dayton, Ohio, and Mountain View, Calif., as well as a European office, Aurora Swiss Aerospace, located in Luzern, Switzerland.