Alpine still in drone race


Alpine remains in the running for a federal test facility to explore the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, despite a “misleading” comment on these pages last week.

(“No ‘drones’ for Alpine,” Alpine Avalanche, Oct. 24, Page 1.) Ron George, senior research officer at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi said a comment by an A&M official supporting the Corpus Christi site that it was “the only site in Texas” was “misleading.” “With the backing of Governor Rick Perry, we are the only site in Texas being considered,” Dr. Luis Cifuentes, vice president of research, commercialization and outreach, was quoted as saying in a press release. “We are leading a statewide effort to locate a test site at Corpus Christi, College Station, Alpine and elsewhere,” George said. “Alpine is in the running. All sites are still in play. There is a statewide effort and the selection of Corpus Christi does not mean that is the only one.”

Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration in February, 2012, to develop a system of six test sitesfor “unmanned aircraft systems” across the US. The sites were to be sufficiently diverse in climate and topography to provide data for integrating the aircraft into the National Airspace System. The sites should not be near Class B airspace where there is a high level of commercial aviation activity. The vehicles are referred to alternately as “UAS,” for unmanned aircraft systems, and “UAV,” for unmanned aerial vehicles.

Current FAA rules do not allow UAVs in the national airspace except for limited purposes in highly restricted airspace and only by public entities. There have been some studies that said the smaller, less expensive unmanned aircraft could be an economic boon to activities like precision agriculture, pipeline and platform monitoring, wildlife and livestock monitoring, surveying, refi nery inspection, shipping monitoring, traffic control, search and rescue, firefighting and others, activities currently accomplished with larger manned aircraft.

George said the proposal does not offer federal funding to attract only those seriously interested in pursuing the idea. Still, 50 teams from 37 states had submitted proposals as of June. “The thing is, Texas airspace is pure gold for this program,” George told the Airport Board in June. Not everyone in Alpine favors the test site here. Walt Pyle of Alpine wondered why Alpine. He said the Casparis Airport can be very busy and worries that the unmanned aircraft could be a hazard to those operations. He wondered why they don’t do the testing at Van Horn, which has very little activity, or even build a dedicated airport someplace like Valentine. “

The drone deal may be good for the city but they have zero liability,” City Councilman Michael Castelli said. He wondered who would be liable in case of an accident involving a drone. Some of the same questions were raised in an April letter to the Airport Board and City Council from Troy Ballard, air interdiction agent and aviation safety offi cer for the US Customs and Border Protection Alpine Air Branch. He asked for a public hearing to air the issues to “seek clarification as to how this will effect flight operations in and out of Alpine Airport.” He wondered how ground movements would be monitored, hours of operation, whether a chase plane would be used, what altitudes would they fly and how the UAS would be separated from other traffi c. He asked about procedures in the case of loss of radio link, will the UAS affect safe operation of other aircraft, dimensions of the UAS and do they have a tracking system or collision avoidance systems. Pyle said the council agreed in July to call a public hearing within 90 days and it now is approaching 120 days with no action.

Oscar Cobos said he asked Mayor Avinash Rangra when the hearing would be set and the mayor told him a hearing was not needed. Rangra told the Avalanche he did not agree with calling a public hearing based on a “what-if.” He said he had not seen the proposal and felt calling a pubic hearing should come after a formal proposal is made to the council. Rangra said the council later decided to delay the hearing because they did not have a formal proposal.

Castelli said he has put an item on the next meeting on Nov. 5 to call the hearing. “If a city councilman requests a public hearing, we will call one,” Rangra said. He said there are a lot of positive applications for drones. “What I am concerned with is privacy,” Rangra said. “Since 9-11, we have lost a lot of our privacy because of security concerns.” But Pyle said there is not much time before the deadline on the project of Dec. 31 and, with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, he was concerned the council would just “rubber stamp” the proposal while the public’s attention was directed elsewhere. “I love that airport but I’m concerned with operations at the airport,” he said. “Many corporate jets won’t come in if there are drones.” He said the big-dollar business jets bring revenues to the city that would be lost if the drones drive them away. Many corporations and their insurance carriers have strict rules where their crews may and may not operate. Large corporate jet aircraft can cost tens of millions of dollars to buy and also have high direct operating and crew costs. Repairs can often take several weeks. “That’s why they told the little remote-controlled airplanes to leave the airport two years ago,” Pyle said. “It’s dangerous if a drone hits a wing or an engine. It’s very expensive. “

If corporate jets stay away, we lose many millions of dollars,” Pyle said. “There is substantial corporate travel here. “We’re going to fi ght this and we’re going to win,” he said. “They’re not going to bury us. Alpine is special.”