CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence & Innovation (LSUASC) has met federal requirements to begin full operations as a test site for unmanned aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated the center as one of only six test sites in December, and approved it as operational on Friday, June 20.
“We are excited to welcome the flourishing industry of unmanned aerial systems to South Texas,” said Dr. Flavius Killebrew, President/CEO of Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi. “Our research in this important area is boundless.”
The test sites are designed to collect data for the FAA concerning the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace, which is expected in 2015.
In the six months since the test site designation, the Lone Star UAS Center has been preparing to receive private companies and other organizations that want to test and research aircraft, software or other possible uses for unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as drones. The operational status of the Padre range, south of Corpus Christi near Sarita, Texas, signals the start of official data collection to the FAA. See a map of the test ranges at lsuasc.tamucc.edu.
“The Texas test site will provide critical data to the FAA, which they need to develop rules, processes and procedures required to safely operate UAS in the national airspace,” said Dr. Luis Cifuentes, Vice President of Research, Commercialization and Outreach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “Texas is open for research, development, testing and evaluation offering diverse geography and climates.”
“The Lone Star UAS Center provides testing capabilities 290 flying days a year over mountains, high deserts, agriculture, coastal and maritime topographies, along the Gulf of Mexico and over virtually unpopulated regions. It’s the ideal research environment for testing.” Cifuentes said.
The center will fly its first mission as a fully operational test site the week of June 23.
“The data we collect during this mission will help the FAA determine best practices for integrating unpiloted aircraft into the national airspace,” said Dr. David Bridges, Director of the University’s UAS Program. “A study of our radio link procedures during this mission will tell us what works best in this area, given its terrain, climate and transmission situations from the UAV, to the ground control station and back to Corpus Christi with the Mission Control Center.”
The mission will also gather video, ultraviolet and thermal image data from the onboard multi-spectral camera for University researchers monitoring coastal habitats and shoreline changes.
Collecting this kind of aerial imagery is vital to research, business and safety. Areas of use for UAS are likely to include:
“This test site is another example of the ability of the resources in the state of Texas and in the Texas A&M System to improve quality of life and economic prosperity,” said John Sharp, Chancellor of the Texas A&M System. “It’s estimated that the impact of this test is more than $6.5 billion over the next 10 years.”
Since 2011, the University has conducted regular flights of its RS-16; the last missions were in March under provisions of a previous FAA agreement.
The University has established a UAS Mission Control Center at the Coastal Bend Business Innovation Center that will manage the proposed 11 test ranges. In addition to the range near Sarita, the center has pending approvals before the FAA for ranges in the Beeville and Port Mansfield areas.
The FAA has authorized LSUASC to conduct research in six primary research areas, including:
Texas state agencies are taking the lead on unmanned technology research to assure that safety requirements are met and to develop policies and procedures for wider use of unmanned technologies.
B. Keith Graf, Director of Aerospace, Aviation, and Defense and the Texas Military Preparedness Commission, with the office of the governor, said the approval will usher in a new dawn in aviation history for the State of Texas.
“Texas continues to make aviation history with further development of UAS technologies that will revolutionize many industries like agriculture, oil and gas, wildlife management, and emergency operations,” he said. “The site will help create new technologies and well-paying jobs. Some of those jobs have already started to materialize in Corpus Christi.”
Much of the expected economic benefit would center on South Texas, the Coastal Bend and Corpus Christi.
“We are excited to see the expected job impact statewide of more than 8,000 jobs over 10 years,” said State Rep. Todd Hunter. “And much of that will be right here in South Texas, and Corpus Christi - the home of unmanned flight.”
The City of Corpus Christi has supported the University’s UAS project, too.
“Corpus Christi sees a great future with unpiloted technology research and development, and is proud to support the Lone Star UAS Center,” said Nelda Martinez, Mayor of Corpus Christi. “This community has the expertise that aerospace companies need, and we are looking forward to showcasing our immense Texas skies.”
The city’s support of the effort included funding through a dedicated sales tax fund for business and job development, commonly known as Type A or 4A funds.
“The Type A board is honored to support this next era of aerospace development that comes with this fully operational status,” said Robert Tamez, chairman of the city’s Business and Job Development Corporation. “The anticipated economic impact from UAS testing and research makes it an obvious component to a successful future for Corpus Christi.”
In addition to the Office of the Governor, LSUASC is working with Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas General Land Office, Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, Texas Department of Agriculture and the Texas Natural Resources Information System.
LSUASC is a consortium of 16 research institutions and private-sector service companies led by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station with Camber Corporation as lead systems integrator. The center is supported by the Texas Governor’s Office of Aerospace, Aviation and Defense.
Research institutions involved include Texas A&M University, Southwest Research Institute, the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at San Antonio.