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A&M wants to test drones in area

April 18th, 2013 under Top Stories

By ALBERTO TOMAS HALPERN

FAR WEST TEXAS – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is seeking to use Alpine Casparis Municipal Airport as a base for unmanned aerial aircraft systems (UAS) testing in the Big Bend region. Unmanned aerial aircraft systems are also known as drones.

The program, called The Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative (LSUASI), is a statewide economic development initiative led by A&M’s Corpus Christi campus and the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, along with other academic institutions and other UAS industrial partners. The aim of the program, according to its executive summary, is to help further develop the UAS industry in the state.

It has garnered the support of Texas Governor Rick Perry, too.

According to the summary, “UAS test ranges will be designated in six states by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2013 for the purpose of developing technologies, policies and procedures that will safely integrate UAS into the national airspace. It is critical for Texas to compete successfully for this designation in order to reap its share of UAS national industrial development and economic growth.”

Aggie researchers launch a drone along the Texas Gulf Coast in March. (Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi photo)

The report goes on to say that an estimated 150,000 jobs and $8 billion annually are expected by 2020 if successful.

Up to 40 states are competing for an FAA test-range contract.

LSUASI’s reports suggests that, “Texas, though somewhat less mobilized than other states, has resources superior to other states regarded as being most competitive. All that remains for Texas to be regarded as a leading contender is commitment of financial resources sufficient to integrate the state’s considerable assets and capacities into a blue-chip test range system that will satisfy FAA requirements and attract UAS industry customers with the promise of first-class service.”

Former Alpine city manager Jesus “Chuy” Garcia had been contacted by LSUASI about leasing Alpine’s airport. According to interim city manager Charles Harrington, Alpine’s Airport Board of Advisors met to discuss the issue, but took no action, as they would like to receive more information about how the airport would be used.

Harrington said he will determine what exactly is being proposed to Alpine and that a contract would have to be negotiated for the use of the city’s airport.

A land use agreement from the university was sent to the city, which would grant the university the right to use designated parts of the airport for UAS testing. The proposed testing flight path would have aircraft flying overhead portions of Brewster, Presidio and Jeff Davis counties.

The university proposed a term lease ending February 13, 2017, which could be extended upon agreement between the two entities. Under the draft agreement, flight plans would be announced to the city 48 hours in advance, and aircraft would maintain a minimum flying altitude of 300 feet above the ground.

The draft agreement also includes an indemnification clause that would hold the university harmless from and against all claims, liabilities, losses, obligations, expenses, judgments and causes of action to include claims of personal injury, death, property damage and the cost of defense of those claims.

The proposal has a few Alpine and Brewster County residents concerned. Lifelong aviator and Brewster County resident Kevin O’Cuilinn said he’s concerned over what be believes to be secrecy surrounding the proposal.

“Not a soul knew about it. It’s the secrecy that upsets me,” O’Cuilinn said this week. He’s also concerned about the future control of the airport down the road if it is leased, and he has safety concerns about drones flying above the city.

“They want the city to not hold the program responsible for accidents. This will start out small, then the next thing you know we’ll have big drones flying out in the future.”

O’Cuilinn cites the airport as an economic driver for the Big Bend region, with tourists, hunters, and businesspeople using it to enter the area. “If we lose (control of) that airport, it’s going to cost the tri-county area a lot of money.”

With his initial concerns raised, O’Cuilinn said he would not be opposed to a program that is beneficial to the area; he just wants more openness and information about the motives behind the program. “I’m not saying I’m against drones, but the airport is too valuable to the community to turn it over.”

Alpine resident JR Smith, speaking as a concerned private citizen, said he had heard rumors abound about the possibility of shutting the airport to public use if the program comes to Alpine.

“That’s what we don’t want to happen,” Smith said, who also is the Alpine Chamber of Commerce executive director. “There are an awful lot of airports in Texas where they can be testing. What is the true intent? There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

The use of unmanned aircraft is of course a hot-button issue as they are used by the U.S. military in conflict zones and are capable of delivering ordnance payloads. Law enforcement agencies and private companies have also developed and used drones for surveillance capabilities. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been operating Predator B drones along both the southern and northern U.S. borders to monitor activity. According to CBP, they have employed the Predator B drone on the Southwest border since 2005 and along the northern border since 2009. They also operate a maritime drone called the Guardian.

One Predator B drone and one Guardian drone are operated out of a naval air station in Corpus Christi.

LSUASI says in their report that, “Justifiable concerns over UAS invasions of privacy and civil liberties already have been addressed by current case law, which obviates the need for protectionist statutes that will needlessly delay UAS integration.”

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi tested its first unmanned flight over the Gulf of Mexico in March.

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