Unmanned aircraft taking to Texas skies for FAA testing



Increasing numbers of aircraft are taking to the Texas skies unmanned.

Texas was selected as one of six states to participate in testing and research for the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to integrate rules and regulations for drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), by 2015.

The state has one of the largest test sites ranging from West Texas to the Gulf Coast to the Brazos Valley.

Some corporations, like Amazon, have already shown an interest in using drones as delivery drivers.

With the increasing numbers of unregulated UAS taking to the skies, it has many concerned with not only safety, but privacy, as well.

The UAS crafts generally only weigh a few pounds, and while most stay near their owner or operator, others can go miles away from home.

“People see [drones] and they think it’s an alien; it’s just too different,” said drone owner Robert Dodd. “But it really is nothing more than a remote controlled airplane. That’s all it is.”

Drone usage has existed for years, starting with mainly military use. The Department of Homeland Security uses drones along the Texas border with Mexico.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expecting thousands of drone aircraft to be introduced to the skies over the next several years, and they want universities to help them develop the roadmap.

Texas A&M Corpus Christi, along with several other campuses across the state, is testing and helping with that roadmap for future use.

“The reason Texas is one of the six selected is because of geographic diversity,” Dr. John Valasek, Texas A&M Center for Autonomous Vehicles And Sensor Systems (CANVASS), said.
“Texas has mountains, prairies, deserts, forests and seashore, and that’s a unique combination.”

Texas A&M is using a former U.S. Army Airfield near Bryan to test crafts’ control and certification. Researchers will also be looking into easing the public’s fears regarding the unmanned craft.

“What we’re really trying to do is to establish trust in autonomous systems with the public and with people,” Valasek said. “Because autonomous systems, no matter what kind they are, are going to be interacting with us on a daily basis.”

Students at Texas A&M University designed and built the fleet that will be used for FAA testing at the Texas A&M Riverside Campus.

They said their testing has been close to home, so far, but expect future flights to go out for several miles.

“A lot of our operations have been manual flying so we’ll have a pilot on the ground manually controlling them with radio, and that makes it so we have to fly within visual range of them,” graduate student researcher Jim Henrickson said.

The Texas Legislature took steps in the 2013 session to make sure they are staying with the advancing technology.

“The main concerns are about privacy and private property and that sort of thing,” said State Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

Hughes was one of several co-sponsors of a bill authored by Terrell Representative Lance Gooden that defines proper drone usage.

The law includes several exemptions for education and research and defines how law enforcement can use drones properly.

“We tried to put in all the exceptions to allow law enforcement to do what they do,” Hughes said. “We want to give them the tools they need. At the same time,we recognize that when our founders passed the Fourth Amendment, they were limiting what government and law enforcement can do.”

Violations of the law carry with them a misdemeanor penalty. Taking an image in violation of the law would be a class C misdemeanor with a fine of up to $500. Distributing or using that image for commercial use would be a class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and/or confinement in jail of up to 180 days.

Texas is one of just nine states with laws on the books for drone aircraft, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lawmakers say with the technology still changing, the legislature will have to keep checking to see if changes need to be made.

“Technology is moving fast, which is great,” Rep. Hughes said. “We just have to make sure that the law is keeping up.”

The FAA UAS testing ongoing in Texas is expected to have an $8 billion impact on the state’s economy. The UAS industry is expected to create around 1,200 jobs.