CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As leaders and subject matter experts in the field of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), the Lonestar UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation (LSUASC) at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi hosted 38 representatives from across the Texas A&M University System on March 27 - 30 to train and discuss implementing system-wide UAS operational policies.
Acting proactively rather than reactively, a goal of the conference was to set-up attendees with networking opportunities, which allowed them to discuss safety issues that could arise with the integration of UAS programs across the A&M System. UAS, more commonly referred to as drones, are often misunderstood.
“I had a lot of questions in my mind coming here, and I think those questions have been resolved in the discussions we have had over the last week,” said Christina Robertson, Director of Environmental Health and Safety at Texas A&M University.
Robertson revealed that although Texas A&M University is still developing their UAS program, they often receive unusual requests from third party UAS users that could impact the campus.
“We had ESPN and the NFL Channel contact us last week wanting to do drone flights to capture videos and photos of our star athletes as they are preparing for the next season,” Robertson explained. “That is why it is going to be important for us to develop a program that we can follow when we get requests for flying drones over our campus.”
LSUASC collaborated with the A&M System Office of Risk Management and the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) to share Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS safety policies and procedures for attendees to take back to their respective institutions.
“If there is an aircraft accident, whether it be manned or unmanned, the very first thing the FAA asks is, ‘where are your policies and who has been trained on them?’” said Jerry Hendrix, LSUASC Executive Director. “Now we have done our diligence by training all of the universities in the A&M System. This means that we are assuring safe UAS operations across all of our campuses, students, facilities and research areas.”
Since becoming fully operational in 2014, LSUASC has been tasked by the FAA to lead the way in developing safe operating procedures and establishing protocols for unpiloted aircraft certifications. During their three years of research, Hendrix and his team have developed a wealth of knowledge and have become subject matter experts in the field, often serving as a resource to those who are interested in UAS operations.
“We want UAS to fly safely, so it was only natural for us to reach out to LSUASC and tap into the knowledge they have built through their research and intimate relationship with the FAA,” said Henry Judah, A&M System Associate Director of Risk Management. “Should a UAS related accident occur on one of our campuses, it would be an incredibly difficult story to tell if we had never come together to take advantage of resources like LSUASC.”
Texas A&M Extension Service Representative Steve Williams noted that this training session sets the stage for the use of the National UAS Credentialing Program to assist A&M System in being recognized for its strong commitment to safe UAS operations. In addition to learning about A&M System policies for UAS operation, attendees learned about FAA airspace, ownership and permission of operations, aviation safety, aviation risk management, aircraft registration, understanding who aircraft operators are, understanding UAS and associated regulations.
“I think it’s great to bring everybody together throughout the system because it gives us a chance to compare notes,” shared Cynthia Foster, Texas A&M Forest Services Planning and Preparedness Department Head and Aviation Manager. “Some of the challenges we have, others won’t face and vice versa. There have been some excellent discussions going on.”
Whether A&M System members are using these machines to help assess wildfire damage or capture footage of star athletes in action, Hendrix wants everyone who uses this new technology to be fully equipped with the knowledge necessary to be in compliance with FAA rules and regulations.
“People see UAS as toys, but they are aircraft,” explained Hendrix. “Any aircraft over half a pound has to be registered with the FAA, and the FAA owns the airspace from the ground up. So we have to follow the policies and procedures that the FAA has established. We as citizens, public entities and civil operators have to follow the rules.”
The conference was attended by representatives from the following universities and agencies: West Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University-Texarkana, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Prairie View A&M University, Texas A&M University-Central Texas, Texas A&M University, Texas A&M International University, Texas A&M University-Kingsville, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, Texas A&M University at Galveston, Tarleton State University, Texas A&M Transportation Institute, TEEX, Texas A&M Forest Service and both The Texas A&M Agrilife Extension and Research Service.