Texas site in running for testing UAVs
The San Antonio (Texas) Express-News
As far as university experiments go, this one was fairly simple: Fly an RS-16 drone over the Laguna Madre to see if it could detect oil floating in plastic kiddie pools.
But hopes are the results of this and other unmanned flight experiments will help shape policies for commercial and civil use of unmanned aerial vehicles, said by many to be the next wave in aviation.
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, which conducted the experiment, has applied to oversee one of the Federal Aviation Administration's six test sites for nonmilitary uses of UAVs.
Its application, a collaborative effort of entities including Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, University of Texas-Arlington, locally based Southwest Research Institute and the Camber Corp., is one of 25 nationwide and the only one from Texas. The FAA is expected to announce the winners in December.
“We are quite confident about our submission for various reasons, one of which is that we have over 6,000 square miles of airspace over varied topography,” said Luis Cifuentes, the university's associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies.
While any hobbyist can purchase a UAV to fly around their own property, guidelines amount to a 1981 advisory for model aircraft that says not to fly them higher than 400 feet or near populated areas.
Commercial UAV uses are prohibited. Civilian uses — for law enforcement, for example — require a certificate of authorization.
In 2012, however, Congress passed legislation directing the FAA to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the nation's airspace by 2015.
The test sites are the FAA's way of gathering data to deal with safety and privacy issues.
Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said there's a lot riding on the FAA allowing nonmilitary drones into the nation's airspace.
An AUVSI study released in March found civil and commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems in the United States could have an $82 billion-plus economic impact over the first 10 years of integration.
The impact in Texas would be around $6.5 billion, the study concluded.
“When Congress passed the FAA bill back in February of 2012, one of the most popular, if not the most popular, provision in that entire bill was the creation of these six unmanned aircraft test sites,” Gielow said. “There's obviously a lot of congressional interest in these sites.”
UAV manufacturers are eager to work with the test-site agencies to make sure they're not wasted opportunities, Gielow said.
“What we want to ensure is that all of the sites that ultimately are selected are talking to each other and that the information that they're collecting is being sent to the FAA and is actually being utilized,” he said. “It would be a shame if all of these sites do kind of duplicative work.”
There are concerns both about safety — there are already stories of drones colliding with manned aircraft, other drones, and at least one house — and privacy violations, whether from Peeping Toms or Big Brother.
Private plane owners in particular worry about cluttered airspace.
“We don't have any current regulations or standards for unmanned aircraft like we do for manned operations,” said Heidi Williams, vice president of air traffic and modernization for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “Until those are laid out and we can ensure that there will be no conflicts between manned and unmanned (aircraft), there continue to be risks.”
The Texas Privacy Act, which became effective Sept. 1, already addresses the privacy issue. It's a Class C misdemeanor for a civilian to use a UAV to capture an image of a civilian individual or privately owned property “with the intent to conduct surveillance.”
State Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, who sponsored the bill, said there are exceptions for law enforcement, but “at the end of the day their best bet would be to get a search warrant.”
“The thinking was that no one, including law enforcement, should be able to do indiscriminate surveillance over a private citizen's property without a warrant,” Gooden said.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the measure may have gone too far in regulating private use.
“The biggest concern we have around the technology is it will be used for mass surveillance, watching everybody all the time, over a very large area,” he said. “But when it comes to the private-sector uses ... there is a potential for a lot of very helpful, productive innovation.”
A lot of that innovation is going to go on with or without the FAA, said Rory Paul of Volt Aerial Robotics, a drone consultancy based in St. Louis, Mo.
Paul is dubious about the FAA having a plan ready by 2015, and he said small, private companies are already being big-footed out of the decision making by giant defense contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
As debates rage around privacy issues, some of the same companies that produce military and federal law enforcement drones are looking to dominate less controversial realms such as agriculture, oil and gas, and mining, Paul said.
“They get involved in lobbying this process, and they want to make it as restrictive as possible for civilian users,” Paul said. “The idea is to keep small companies out ... We've actually seen the rules written to suit certain airframes.”
Meanwhile, there are questions about whether the FAA will ever be able to effectively regulate UAVs. With the technology already out there, some aren't about to wait for the answer.
“What you do is ignore the FAA,” Paul said. “The fact of the matter is the FAA can't police this. They don't have inspectors out in rural areas looking at the UAV operators.”
The proposed test site in Texas would encompass a swath of airspace that stretches over the vast, sparsely populated ranchlands of South Texas up to College Station and includes 11 test ranges for drones, three of which are already FAA-approved. Access to the Gulf of Mexico and airspace that is relatively free of manned aircraft traffic are added plusses, A&M's Cifuentes said.
Test-site designation could open the test ranges to both university and commercial research, he said, allowing researchers to skip having to get federal approval for both the aircraft they are testing and the place to test it.
“We could operate any aircraft at any of the ranges as long as we are willing to certify we can operate those aircraft safely in those ranges,” said Ron George, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi's senior research development officer.
While many know about government UAV use — Corpus Christi in 2010 became U.S. Custom and Border Protection's fourth base for border surveillance drones — civilian uses are just beginning to be explored in the United States. Among other uses, drones are being looked at for monitoring nitrogen levels in corn crops, mapping sea grasses for fishermen and detecting oil spills.
UAVs also could prove useful for search and rescue missions.
Some experts say a UAV could have shown changes in the direction of the fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters in June, Cifuentes said.
“There is no question that this is the future,” he said. “The industry is begging the FAA to open up the airspace.”