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Spy drone-maker eyes Charleston airport on Johns Island for aircraft plant

Charleston Executive Airport

Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island has two runways and is owned by Charleston County Aviation Authority. Site plans show a spy drone-making company wants to add a manufacturing facility near an abandoned taxiway and wooded area on the right. The Stono River is in the background. File/Jonathan Sheppard/Charleston County Aviation Authority

A spy drone manufacturing plant that could employ 100 workers is being proposed for Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island.

Site plans presented to the city of Charleston show a light industrial development called "Project Rose" that includes three structures near an abandoned taxiway at the airfield off River Road.

Charleston-based Qatari defense firm Barzan Aeronautical is identified on the document.

The company's website says it is "focused on the application and use of aerial (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems that support the defense and security requirements of Qatar, the United States and NATO allies." 

Barzan established a Charleston operation "to build out a large military aircraft initiative that is expected to support numerous jobs," according to a white paper distributed to members of Congress by Qatar’s ambassador.

The company was formed in 2018 after Qatari officials met with South Carolina political and business leaders and Boeing Co. executives at the planemaker's 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston.

At the time, leaders with the Qatar Investment Authority said they were looking for investment opportunities in the Palmetto State.

A Barzan representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the Johns Island project.

Elliott Summey, CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority, which owns the small airport, declined to identify the manufacturer, citing a confidentiality agreement.

But he called the project "a nice investment" of possibly several million dollars and said it could create about 100 jobs at the general aviation airfield near Kiawah and Seabrook islands that serves small planes and corporate jets.

Site plans show a 54,000-square-foot aircraft manufacturing plant, an 18,400-square-foot office building and another structure near the parking area with offices, conference room and classroom.

The assembly plant design shows spaces for five small aircraft inside the building next to several smaller production spaces.

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They include a 3,500-square-foot machine welding shop, a nearly 5,000-square-foot shipping and receiving room, a nearly 1,300-square-foot electronics department and a 4,300-square-foot systems integration lab.

The proposed main office building includes several offices as well as a lunchroom with a kitchen and another kitchen for employees.

An adjacent structure with the classrooms and conference space is flanked by two large fountains and adjoins a smaller manufacturing structure. Next to it is room for a future hangar.

"Project Rose" is expected to take up about 10 acres on the 1,333-acre airport site. A 200-space parking area is proposed to the west of the abandoned taxiway, according to site plans.

Plans also show a 20-by-40-foot cooling tower as well as a future assembly building of just over 11,000 square feet and a future multiuse structure of 4,850 square feet.

The company has reportedly secretly developed a drone called Nightwarden, which can be armed, in Charleston after previously purchasing an Aerosonde unmanned aircraft from Providence, R.I.-based Textron Systems.

The Nightwarden aircraft is based on the Aerosonde technology, and both companies have been production partners since 2019, according to a recent report by the Online Intelligence website.

The drone Barzan purchased from Textron weighs 80 pounds, has an 11.9-foot wingspan and a 20-pound payload capacity, according to the company’s marketing materials. The aerial device, which can be operated from a mobile control center, has a 15,000-foot ceiling and a 75-mile range.

Ahead of the site plan filing, Barzan held meetings with the Aviation Authority and Charleston County economic development officials, according to a Barzan filing under the federal Foreign Agent Registration Act.

Barzan Aeronautical is a division of Barzan Holdings, which is owned by the Qatari Ministry of Defense. According to the Barzan website, the entity is “responsible for empowering the military capabilities of the Qatari Armed Forces” through partnerships with international companies.

Barzan’s website says the company picked Charleston because it “is home to one of the largest hubs in aviation, engineering and advanced manufacturing in the United States.”

It also touted the region's "can do" business attitude and academic institutions that the company said "made Barzan's decision easy." 

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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