NMSU, FAA pursue sought-after drone research


By Lindsey Anderson

LAS CRUCES >> A single white trailer sits near runway 4-22 at the Las Cruces airport, the antenna on top chatting with the 21.5-foot-long Aerostar A drone parked on the tarmac outside.

This is where New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center, once the lone such federally approved center in the nation, conducts most flight tests and evaluates procedures for unmanned aircraft as drones increasingly become part of everyday life.

Though drones are most often associated with military strikes on suspected terrorists abroad, scientists and CEOs are turning to unmanned aircraft to expand their research and businesses. Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos said he hopes to use small drones to deliver packages. Some photographers use drones to capture weddings. A tourist recently crashed his camera-equipped drone into Yellowstone National Park’s iconic Grand Prismatic Spring, and other parks have reported problems with drones buzzing loudly overhead or crashing into scenic landmarks as tourists try to capture unique photos.

The private use of unmanned aircraft outdoors violates the FAA’s current regulations, which restrict most flights to law enforcement and researchers. But as the devices become increasingly popular and cheaper, the federal agency has recognized it is in dire need of new rules.

“The technology is moving so quick that the FAA as a regulator and, really, the public cannot keep up with the speed,” NMSU Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center Deputy Director Dennis “Zak” Zaklan said. “… It’s such a big field. The important thing is to understand that drones are not a negative entity. Really, the enhancements they can bring to all aspects of society are tremendous and unlimited.”