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A&M-Corpus Christi’s selection to test drones puts Far West Texas airspace in play

January 9th, 2014 under Top Stories

Brewster County joins Presidio County,
city of Alpine in no-drone resolutions

By SARAH M. VASQUEZ

FAR WEST TEXAS – The Federal Aviation Administration last week selected Texas A&M University – Corpus Christi as one of six launch and recovery sites nationwide for testing unmanned aircraft systems, or drones, putting portions of Brewster and Presidio counties in the fly zone.

The announcement came on the same day that Brewster County became the third political subdivision in Far West Texas to oppose or limit drone testing in the area sky.

Through the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative (LSUASI), the university proposed 11 ranges throughout the state to test and research UAS, also known as drones.

One of the test ranges in the state includes the Big Bend region, which covers parts of Brewster and Presidio counties. However, after City of Alpine officials voted against the use of the Alpine Casparis Airport for this initiative in November, Presidio County took a proactive stance and adopted a resolution in December stating they support the program in theory, but only if it doesn’t affect the county’s emergency services and economic development. Another concern stressed by County Airports Manager Chase Snodgrass was safety.

During its last meeting for 2013, Brewster County Commissioners’ Court also adopted a resolution stating the county doesn’t support the use of drones UAS as a result from lack of input from the university. The Alpine Daily Planet reported that County Judge Val Beard said no one from the program had contacted the county or the City of Alpine to seek input about the impact the testing would have on the residents.

Ron George, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi senior research development officer, didn’t comment on the resolutions because he said he didn’t know about them, but did say Texas A&M did receive a “great deal” of input from public officials and from the public when they were seeking the use of the Alpine Casparis Airport.

“We certainly got the message, and we want these aircrafts to be safely implemented in the airspace,” said George.

The FAA stated in a news release that the university intends to develop system safety requirements for UAS. Texas A&M stated on its website that one of the main research goals is to find “the safest methods for unmanned planes to sense other aircraft and take measures to avoid collisions.”

“The test site is all about safety,” said George. “We don’t want to hurt anybody or invade privacy.”

The Texas Legislature passed HB 912, also known as the Texas Privacy Act, this summer to regulate capturing images by unmanned vehicles and aircrafts. Basically, the bill prohibits the use of an UAS to capture an image of an individual or private property in the state with the intent to conduct surveillance, making it a Class C misdemeanor. However, it will be raised to a Class B misdemeanor if the image is published.

There are some exceptions though. It’s not illegal to use UAS for educational or professional uses, such as designated airspace as a test site or range authorized by FAA or by the U.S. military. LSUASC stated on their website they support the enforcement of the Texas Privacy Act and also participated in it’s development.

George also said they don’t know where the launch and recovery site in the Big Bend region is going to be as they are still working on the proposed test sites. It might not even be in Brewster County, and they haven’t approached any airports in Presidio County. While there is some airspace that is currently active, the Big Bend range is currently not in operation.

Since the City of Alpine declined the use of the airport, Texas A&M has been approached by other municipalities and private ranch owners wanting to talk to them about potential launch and recovery sites. But George stressed that no matter where they chose, they can’t fly UAS until FAA gives approval, which is scheduled for no earlier than mid-2015, and before they enter the airspace, they intend to go to the community and address concerns as well as inform them about the program.

“If people are concerned, then we will do our very best to answer questions and address concerns,” said George. FAA also requires they post a notice to airmen (NOTAM) to notify pilots there are UAS in the air. One requirement in their contract is to have an outreach program, which George said they do. They plan to add a feedback feature on their website at http://lsuasc.tamucc.edu so people can address concerns online. Since Texas A&M has been awarded as a test site, the next moves are to prepare reports and to meet with FAA.

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