Headline for Featured Item #1 University Choosing New Launch Site for Drone Proposal - Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
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University Choosing New Launch Site for Drone Proposal

November 20, 2013

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is reviewing several promising options in the Big Bend area for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) research.

The Alpine city council voted down a proposal to allow the city's municipal airport to be used as a launch and recovery site for the UAS program operated by the University’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence and Innovation Center (LSUASC).

"We are disappointed that we won't be able to include the Alpine airport in our statewide network,” said Dr. Luis Cifuentes, Vice President for Research, Development and Outreach at A&M-Corpus Christi. “But, we have been approached by several other facilities in the area willing to support this opportunity."

Several Alpine residents spoke out over concerns often associated with UAS such as spying and safety.

“We understand that images of military drones on television and stories of unmanned surveillance have led some to a ‘wild west’ scenario for the future of unmanned aircraft,” said Cifuentes. “However, the reality is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will use test sites, such as the one in our proposal, to ensure safety and privacy once UAS are allowed to be flown by ordinary citizens.”

In fact, the new Texas Privacy Act prohibits the use of unmanned technology to “spy” on private property or individuals.

“With our research, federal officials will be able to set up effective guidelines to integrate these aircraft into our airspace safely,” said Cifuentes. “The planes can then be used for activities such as fighting wild fires and monitoring hurricanes, without endangering a pilot.”

The operations could also include observations of water and land interface, wildlife and herd count, mapping of sea grass and salt marsh communities, and oil pipeline tracking.

The Alpine airport would have become one of several ranges in the LSUASC’s statewide test site proposal to the FAA.  These test ranges would be highly monitored for appropriate research use. The FAA is scheduled to designate six such sites in the United States by the end of the year. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi led a statewide effort to bring a UAS test site to Texas, and has the backing of the governor. The designation is expected to generate hundreds of jobs in Texas, with an overall estimated economic impact of $8 billion over the next ten years. 

“The economic benefits of UAS integration have been shown in a thorough study published earlier this year.” said Cifuentes.

The Big Bend region was selected as one of the test ranges with strong recommendations by proposal consultants who were former FAA executives and air-traffic control officials, Cifuentes said. The variety of terrain in Texas creates a beneficial setting for tests and in the creation of new applications for unmanned aircraft. The FAA has stated specifically that it wants a variety of topography and weather for these test sites.

“Texas terrain provides the perfect backdrop for testing this type of technology,” said Dr. David Bridges, Director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program in the College of Science & Engineering. “We have the Gulf to the east, high country to the west, grassy plains, and forest, not to mention about every type of weather imaginable.”

The Alpine decision does not take Texas out of the running for the FAA test-site designation, Cifuentes said.  

"We have a very competitive proposal. Texas airspace is perfect for this program and we have further options for securing a launch and recovery site in the Big Bend region," Cifuentes said.

The LSUASC has been designated a research center affiliated with the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) by the A&M System Board of Regents. The test-site proposal led by A&M-Corpus Christi includes support from the Governor's Office of Aerospace, Aviation and Defense, elements of the University of Texas System, the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, the BayTech research consortium in Houston, the aviation division of the Texas Department of Transportation, Camber Corporation and other private-sector companies.        


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