A university research team in Texas was one of six teams selected by the FAA recently to begin testing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — otherwise known as drones. The main focus of the testing is to work out safety and communication issues, and huge chunks of Texas have been designated as potential testing sites. But some parts of the state are not keen on the idea.
It’s clear sunny day in Kenedy County, Texas. The site where Texas A&M Corpus Christi tests its unmanned aerial vehicles, called RS-16, is on a ranch so large that it's a 45 minute drive from the ranch gate to the test site.
The testing field is mostly green except for a white tent, a few generators, and a trailer whose roof bristles with satellite dishes and antennas.
“This is the equivalent of going from propellers to jets. This is the next big thing in aviation," said John Huguley, the mission commander and a UAV booster.
The media is here to see the RS-16 take off. After two hours of prep, this orange and grey plane, 10 times the size of a typical model airplane, is launched into the air via slingshot.
It’s monitored and controlled by at least two people in the trailer. Matt McCurdy is the internal pilot. He can change its route simply by clicking a mouse.
“What you see here is the data coming down from the aircraft and this allows me to control the aircraft, tell where it needs to go, how high it should fly, and what airspeed it should be flying at," McCurdy explains.
This craft can go up to 15 miles away and its video, taken from a camera on its tail, is projected back to the trailer. It returns after an hour and a half. Huguley calls it a successful mission.
“They bring necessary services for our nation, it’s something we need to get into the market as soon as we can, but we need to do it as safe as possible and that’s the whole purpose of why we’re doing it the way we are," he said.
Analysts believe the industry will bring economic benefits to Texas and the five other states where testing has been approved.
Mike Blades is an aerospace and defense analyst with Frost Sullivan. He says the testing sites could bring jobs to the state.
"The economic impact will really be in the build up around the sites getting there, getting back, everything that supports the infrastructure of what customers are going to need when they come to your test sites," Blades said.
The next big thing in aviation and a thousand jobs. As many as 11 test ranges encompassing a huge amount of Texas airspace are possible test sites. But there remains a lot of kinks to work out, even before the testing is expanded across the state.
At a tiny airport in Alpine, Texas, a private pilot is taking off, one of many drawn to the wide-open skies of West Texas. There's no commercial air traffic, and it's bounded by the Rio Grande Valley and high desert. This draws professional pilots who relocate here specifically to fly their own planes.
There's not a lot of enthusiasm here for drones. Two counties targeted by Texas A&M have recently banned drone testing. The city of Alpine, which owns the airport, did the same.
Pilot Steve Posner said he doesn’t even want to consider the testing.
“Airspace they want to use for flying drones is uncontrolled. In other words, there’s no radar services. There’s no air traffic separation at lower altitudes in this area and it’s a very dangerous situation for midair collisions," Posner said.
The nearest air traffic control is in Albuquerque, N.M., 490 miles away. And both Texas counties wonder about the promise of economic benefit. Lawmakers here say two drivers of the region’s economy, ranching and tourism, depend on airspace tranquility.
“A person comes out here, spends their time, spends their money to come to a place where they expect to see clear skies and not hear noise," said Brewster County Commissioner Tom Williams. "I don’t think drones make a lot of noise. But they are in the sky. And there’s definitely the uncertainty about the safety of that type of program. Some of these things go up and some of them come down where they’re not supposed to.”
A recent case in point happened off the California coast one afternoon in November. Two sailors were burned when a drone crashed into their Navy cruiser. Five days before, another military drone crashed into Lake Ontario in central New York state.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said at a Senate committee Wednesday that Congress has directed his agency to find a very broad platform. Congress has ordered the FAA introduce commercial drones into U.S. airspace by the end of next year.
Senators pressured Huerta on another big issue in Texas and elsewhere —privacy.
“We would welcome the opportunity to work with our federal partners on a way forward," Huerta said.
That means there is no policy on privacy yet.
One pilot in Texas said, “We’re not Luddites We know drones are inevitable.” But not here, he said, before safety and privacy are addressed.