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The pathway for industry to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into the national air space system has been happening in several ways since the FAA set up test sites such as the one at A&M–Corpus Christi.

“Our role is to offer services to private sector companies, federal and state government agencies, and help them evaluate unmanned aircraft systems, incorporate them into their business case, and then report to the FAA the test data we’ve accumulated from our ranges,” George said.

Work at the Lone Star test site will help the agency establish rules, regulations, operating procedures, and air traffic control operations for the air space that unmanned aerial systems will occupy.

Below 500 feet is the space that will be most populated by our model airplanes, drones, quad copters, and other unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) less than 55 lbs.

“We have businesses approaching us in order to monitor pipelines, look at their refinery stacks with UAS, pursue agriculture interests both by state agencies and private sector companies,” George said.

Recently, the test-site research team from the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence & Innovation at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi was dispatched to Wimberley, Texas, to conduct low-altitude research flights in the wake of devastating flooding in Wimberley, about 30 miles southwest of Austin. More than 400 homes were destroyed.

The mission performed real-time aerial searches for missing persons, livestock, and vehicles surveying land areas, including bridges and roadways.

“We were called in by one of Corpus Christi’s business folks during record flooding in central Texas,” George said. “Houses were swept away by the flood waters, and people were swept away. Extensive search and rescue efforts were underway.

“We mounted a team on a volunteer basis and called in our private sector folks to come in and help us using our permission from the FAA to fly anywhere in the country up to 200 feet. “We generated a great deal of experience, data, and best practices. We discovered very quickly that anyone who operates these things in the commercial air space has a lot to learn about how to do it. Just procedurally,” George noted.

The Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center test-site team was based at a private ranch about five miles north of Wimberley to conduct low-altitude flights to assess damages related to the deadly storm that flooded the Blanco River.

16 HISPANIC ENGINEER & Information Technology | Fall 2015

The research vehicles included an AscTec Falcon 8 provided by HUVRData of Austin, Texas, equipped with high-definition video and thermal-imaging cameras and multispectral sensors; a senseFly eBee provided by Urban Engineering of Corpus Christi equipped with a 16-megapixel camera and a 12-megapixel near-infrared camera; and a DJI Phantom quad-copter provided by A&M–Corpus Christi’s iCORE Lab and the University’s College of Science and Engineering equipped with a 16-megapixel video camera and a forward-looking infrared camera.

Back at base, Airworthiness and Standardization engineers Daniel Mendez and Luis Hernandez helped with overseeing the FAA regulations that enabled the Lone Star team to fly legally in Wimberley. Software engineer Hunter Morgan was involved with back end communication. The three new graduates are employed by the lead systems integrator, Camber Corporation, which runs the Lone Star UAS Center.

“Right off the bat, we are beginning to see the impact,” Dr. Cifuentes said. “This part of South Texas is the center of growth for STEM education, particularly for underrepresented students.

“The contribution of a test site is a critical part of that and has had an impact on our ability to recruit and hire students from the region.”

Located in a business incubator operated by Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi, Dr. George sees the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation as a magnet for startups interested in developing their business case around UAS in the Coastal Bend.

“I believe we have two companies in the center right now that are exploring those options — want to use UAS in a specific area like mapping, for which these technologies are very useful,” he said.

Other tests being conducted involve the BNSF Railway at a small-town airport, a strategic choice far from traffic and people and close to the water.

BNSF operates one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America, with 32,500 miles of rail across the western two-thirds of the United States. Cifuentes says the impact of the tests on a county, where the average income is $17,000, has been significant.

“Local people are tickled pink, with folk coming in, setting up shop, eating at restaurants, and utilizing local hotels,” said the vice president of research, commercialization, and outreach.

“The center is not only having an impact on our students, on integration of unmanned aircraft systems in the national space, but on local economies in different parts of Texas.”

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