The Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems plant that puts together drones near Trent Lott International Airport has been in operation for four years and has grown from 25 employees to 70.
As the newest Navy contract goes into full swing, the plant is expected to double production, from producing the fuselages for five or six high-altitude surveillance drones a year to 10 a year by 2015.
There are 30 of the Global Hawk-type unmanned planes in existence in the world today and every fuselage was built in Moss Point.
"There's no plan to build them anywhere else," said Jim Stratford, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman.
As the industry grows, the plant management is considering a second shift or more tooling or both, Stratford said.
Site manager Brian Mahoney has watched the small, high-tech plant grow to fit its shoes.
Production at the site now takes up more than two-thirds of the building's 101,000 square feet, assembling fuselages for Global Hawk-type drones, control boards for drones and installing the electronics in the small drone helicopters called Fire Scout.
They now build four separate styles of Global Hawk fuselage, depending on the customer's needs. There's the Air Force version, the new Navy version, the Euro Hawk that Germany owns, one NATO is considering and others.
The state and Jackson County pitched in to attract the plant that cost $25 million in initial investment of land and building, $2.5 million for access roads and utilities, $1 million securing access to the airport's taxiway and later, an additional $2 million to $3 million in company building improvements.
The overall economic impact of the plant is $16 million with a net effect on 161 jobs that include suppliers in the area, company officials said.
On site, it hires from a cross section of the United States via the Internet. Workers have specific skills and often have a military background. They often learn of openings through word-of-mouth, though Northrop Grumman has worked with the local community college to establish a curriculum for training workers.
The plant usually has 18 months' notice to increase staff or gear up for an increase in work and keeps a list of potential employees. Northrop Grumman has an option on an additional 20 acres to the north for future growth.
About half the workers live in Alabama and almost all of them have some ties to the South, Mahoney said.
One exciting change is that the company plans to begin test flying the Fire Scout at Trent Lott by year's end.
Millions have been spent in preparation to give the plant access to the airport's taxiways, support from an onsite fire department and building and equipment enhancements.
By next year, the company could have a permanent control console in place for routine test flights.
The plant installs no weapons on the drones, Mahoney said. The ones manufactured there are designed for information gathering.
But the fact that the military demand for a drone product has increased indicates the Moss Point plant has a bright future.
"It gives you a sense of comfort, but meeting customer expectation and success in the field is what will dictate its future," Mahoney said.
"There's going to be competition," he said. "But we're in a good position. There are high expectations that we'll continue to grow and develop this site."
Information from: The Sun Herald, http://www.sunherald.com