Texas A&M-Corpus Christi blazes path for commercial drones

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by Kevin Reece / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on January 16, 2014 at 11:38 PM

Updated Thursday, Jan 16 at 11:40 PM

SOUTH TEXAS -- In a remote corner of South Texas, on a mudflat 8 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, an hour south of Corpus Christi, and 22 miles from the nearest major highway, scientists from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi are prepping the Texas skies for the future of unmanned commercial flight.

The site near Sarita, Texas is one of 11 Texas test ranges approved for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flights after the state was declared one of six states federally approved for drone testing for non-military applications.

“For the last two years, we’ve been researching the best ways for using UAS applications – from helping monitor marine environments to tracking harmful pollutants over land and water,” said Dr. David Bridges, Director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program. “Now that we’ve been named one of six FAA test sites, we are continuing our research and understanding of how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into our national airspace.”

Thursday, Bridges and his team invited media to the remote site to watch their UAS drone in action. The RS-16 is a gasoline-powered, propeller driven vehicle with a 12’ 11” wingspan that can carry a scientific payload of 25 pounds and stay aloft at 65 knots in a computer-controlled flight for up to 16 hours. But the impact of this single vehicle is much bigger than the cameras and other scientific equipment it can carry.

“As far as what these UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) bring to the market it’s beyond anything we could imagine,” said mission commander John Huguley.

The goal of test sites like the one operated by Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is to show, in the next 6 months, that unmanned vehicles can be flown safely without threat to piloted craft. Once that hurdle is crossed this site, and 6,000 square miles of Texas airspace connecting the 11 different state test sites, could be opened to commercial UAV/UAS companies with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as their guide.

“It’s like a dam that’s about to burst, said Bridges. “And we don’t know if it’s going to be a big flood or a little flood but we’re standing on the other side of the dam. I think it could be huge. The potential is definitely there and this could become a very active place,” he said of the remote site near Sarita.

The ultimate goal is to give the aerial surveillance abilities that now only belong to the government, to firefighters mapping wildfires, farmers inspecting crops, and rescuers surveying natural disasters.

“If we were to identify 1,500 uses for UAV’s there are another 6,000 we haven’t thought about,” said Huguley. “I really see the savings in safety, the savings we can bring to the nation as a whole as we bring these into the commercial market. But I fully understand we have to do it right and we have to do it safe.”

Recent studies show an anticipated economic impact of $8 billion statewide, $260 million in South Texas, and more than 1,200 jobs created by the program over the next 10 years.

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