Lone Star UAS Center Conducts Robust Drone Test Flights over South Texas Ranchland


CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center (LSUASC) will conduct a robust series of flight missions the week of June 23, part of its preparation for becoming fully operational as one of only six federal test sites.

Researchers will run missions each day through Thursday with the University’s RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

“The Lone Star UAS Center will now send official data to the FAA,” said Dr. Luis Cifuentes, the University’s Vice President for Research, Commercialization and Outreach. “We have range users waiting in line for the LSUASC to become operational so they can get on the ranges to test and evaluate innovative research and commercial UAS applications.  These operations will generate data that will help integrate UAS into the national air space. We plan to conduct such tests and evaluations before the end of the summer.”

In the six months since the test site designation from the Federal Aviation Administration in December, the Lone Star Center has been preparing to receive private companies and other organizations that want to test and research aircraft, software or other possible uses for unmanned aircraft, commonly referred to as drones.

University officials expect to receive approval for full test site operations for this test range this summer. This would open the door for the more than 30 aerospace companies that have expressed interest in using the test range. Another two ranges, in the Beeville and Port Mansfield areas, are also before the FAA for approval.

The upcoming missions will address several of the FAA research goals designed to safely integrate unpiloted aircraft into the national airspace by 2015, including:

  • system safety and data gathering as it relates to marine environments;
  • best practices for use of a chase plane that can more efficiently match speed and follow the UAV; and
  • continue refining process of ensuring air traffic control communications between UAV, ground control station and Mission Control Center in Corpus Christi.

During these missions, the UAV will launch from a mobile operations center, fly east out of sight of ground observers, and will be monitored by a piloted aircraft as it flies over Padre Island and the Gulf of Mexico. Regulations require that the drone remain under visual contact at all times.

“The data we collect this mission will help the FAA determine best practices for integrating unpiloted aircraft into the national airspace,” said Dr. David Bridges, Director of the University’s UAS Program. “A study of our radio link procedures this mission will tell us what works best in this area, given its terrain, climate and transmission situations from the UAV, to the ground control station and back to Corpus Christi with the Mission Control Center.

“This is also the first time we’ll be out in the heat of the South Texas summer, so we’ll be able to determine if conditions, which can include an increase of scorpions, snakes and mosquitoes, affect the flight and crew.”

The mission will also gather video, ultraviolet and thermal image data from the onboard multi-spectral camera for University researchers monitoring coastal habitats and shoreline changes.

Collecting this kind of aerial imagery is vital to research, business and safety. Areas of use for UAS are likely to include:

  • search-and rescue missions, surveying disaster areas or accident scenes;
  • mapping coastlines to observe changes over time; and
  • inventorying wildlife, habitats, agriculture and pipelines through remote areas.

The RS-16 is the University’s largest UAV, with a wingspan of nearly 13 feet and a maximum weight of 85 pounds. It launches with a pneumatic catapult and lands on its belly in the soft mudflats common in this coastal Texas region.

Since 2011, the University has conducted regular flights of its RS-16; the last missions were in March. The University has established a UAS Mission Control Center at the Coastal Bend Business Innovation Center that will manage the proposed 11 Texas test ranges.

The University will file a report with the FAA within 45 days of this mission, part of the requirements of test site operators.

While test site research is not used for academic purposes, the University is developing its UAS programming and has seen an increase in interest from prospective and current students with talents in engineering, technology and software, business applications, or surveying science.

In late May, FAA approved another University UAV, a super light fixed-wing aircraft weighing one less than 2 pounds, for flight over the campus to map and monitor campus facilities, derive 3-D models and assess coastal hazards facing the island campus.

“One of the big efforts for unmanned aircraft technology here at A&M-Corpus Christi is coastal and marine applications,” said Dr. Michael Starek, Assistant Professor of Engineering. “Using UAVs to collect data in coastal and marine environments will greatly improve our ability to monitor and understand changes in these environments by enabling us to collect data more often and at lower costs. It will also allow for more efficient response to critical events, such as hurricane impacts.”

While the test site designation does not come with federal funding, studies show an anticipated economic impact, once airspace is opened to UAS, would be about $6.5 billion and 8,256 jobs statewide from 2015 to 2025.

The successful FAA test site bid was a team effort among A&M-Corpus Christi, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, Camber Corporation, the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute, the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, and other research institutions and private-sector companies.

About the College of Science and Engineering: The College of Science and Engineering offers cutting-edge programs supported by award-winning faculty deeply-invested in education and the growth and continuation of knowledge from one generation to the next. As one of the leading institutions for coastal, marine, and environmental research, the College is committed to maintaining an academic environment in which students develop as dynamic professionals who will make significant contributions to society. The College is the academic home of faculty endowed by the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies, one of the foremost leaders in the support and advancement of the long-term use and conservation of the world’s ninth largest body of water. The College also houses the Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science, a center of geospatial research and coastal monitoring in the Gulf of Mexico and the Center for Coastal Studies, recognized internationally for research in harmful algae and their toxins.

About Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi: Offering more than 60 of the most popular degree programs in the state, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi has proudly provided a solid academic reputation, renowned faculty, and highly-rated degree programs since 1947.  The Island University has earned its spot as one of the top research institutions in Texas and supports two marine-oriented Ph.D. programs. For more information, go to http://www.tamucc.edu/.