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University Looks to Land Spot in Drone Program

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, with the support of the governor's office, is applying to the FAA to become part of a program that aims to significantly expand the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi engineering student Adam Ersepke and lab coordinator Jack Edward Esparza prepare for the take off of  the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle, otherwise known as a drone, for a test flight over the Kennedy Ranch near Sarita, Texas on January 18, 2013.

A federal program that aims to significantly expand the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, in national airspace within the next three years could have a Texas component.

On Monday, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, with support from Gov. Rick Perry’s office, will submit an application to the Federal Aviation Administration with the hope that Texas will be selected as one of the testing sites for the controversial aircraft. If the application is approved, it could mean more than 8,200 jobs and an economic impact of $6.5 billion over the next 12 years for the state, according to the governor’s office.

But property owners and local governments are raising questions about how the program could affect individuals' privacy and whether more unmanned aircraft will make the skies dangerous. 

The application is being spearheaded by A&M-Corpus Christi through its Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative, which stems, in part, from the FAA’s Modernization and Reform Act, passed in February 2012. The act requires the FAA to work with the Department of Defense and NASA to develop the site-testing program. The goal of the program, according to the FAA, is to work on "the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the National Airspace System." Texas is one of more than three-dozen U.S. states vying to be home to one of six sites. The FAA is expected to make its decision by the end of this year.

As part of the LSUASI, the university conducted its own test flight in March, launching a drone over the Gulf of Mexico and South Texas to study marine life and to explore other potential uses for infrared and ultraviolet image gathering.

“What we’re doing is a lot of different types of tests to show the FAA what the capabilities are,” said Gloria Gallardo, A&M-Corpus Christi’s director of public affairs. “We are in the process of discovering every thing a UAV can do.”

According to an executive summary of the FAA project, some of the proposed Texas sites that could be included in the project are the Charles Johnson Airport in Port Mansfield and Texas A&M University’s Riverside Campus for their proximity to the school’s FAA-approved airspace, and Chase Field in Beeville for its proximity to uninhabited ranchland.

The university recently approached officials at the Alpine-Casparis Municipal Airport as a potential site. The item was tabled by the airport’s board of directors because of what an official said was a lack of information about the project.

“There were some concerns about protections of airspace. There’s a lot of private airstrips and things around here,” interim City Manager Chuck Harrington said. “Questions like that [weren’t answered]. All we had was a canned presentation.” 

The meeting, first reported by the Big Bend Sentinel, prompted officials to address concerns raised by residents in the Big Bend area regarding drones flying at low altitudes.

“Our aircraft must operate at altitudes no less than 300 feet, according to an agreement we have with the National Park Service,” Ron George, the senior research development officer at A&M-Corpus Christi, wrote in a piece that appeared in the Big Bend Sentinel. “UAS research operations in the proposed Big Bend regional airspace will be at much greater altitudes (more than 9,000 feet), so high that they will be virtually unseen and unheard.”

He added that the FAA requires that potential test sites guarantee “UAS operations compromise neither the environment nor wildlife, including migratory birds.”

The FAA said the rules of the selection process prohibit the agency from speaking about individual applicants, but an agency spokesman said it has taken concerns about privacy and safety into account and is working with other agencies to address those.

The university has already taken steps to make sure that, if awarded, the test sites would be excluded from pending legislation seeking to punish unauthorized users of drones.

State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, has filed legislation that would make it a Class C misdemeanor to use a drone to capture images or video over private property without their consent. But the bill, House Bill 912, provides an exemption for airspace designated as a test site by the FAA.

“Texas A&M-Corpus Christi were the first stakeholders to come to us in the early stages, and we worked with them to develop language they would be happy with,” he said.

The National Agricultural Aviation Association was one of more than 100 individuals or groups that expressed opinions about the project during the FAA’s public-comment period, which ends next month. The group cited concerns about how additional aircraft could affect air safety.

“The NAAA”s primary concern is for the safety of pilots operating at low altitudes,” said the group’s executive director, Andrew Moore.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that focuses on issues related to civil liberties and the First Amendment, asked the FAA to, among other things, clarify what roles NASA and the Department of Defense will play in the project and list all drone operators in an a public database.

Gallardo of A&M-Corpus Christi said that all concerns would be addressed, including how to prevent the unauthorized use of drones.

“Before this technology is made available to the public, we want to know where the potential issues are,” she said. “Can someone trip up a GPS and then the UAV is flying in an area where it’s not supposed to be? Those kinds of tests would need to be done.”

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