The Drones are (Probably) Coming to Texas

If you thought drones were the stuff of Terminator movies and bombings in countries that aren't us, you've got another think coming. The world of drones and drone research is coming to Texas, pending FAA approval.

The FAA is due to announce the designation of six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (a.k.a. drones) any day now. When it does, the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi UAS Command and Control Center will be ready, willing and FAA-allowed to track and control drones anywhere in the Lone Star State.

"All of the technology that we are packing into the Command and Control Center is coming together and being integrated so we can be open for business, with our test site, at the beginning of 2014," said Dr. Ron George, Senior Research Development Officer.

The university already has a permit for about 450 square miles of test site in the area for research purposes, George said, so the FAA will basically be expanding the site they already have, George said.

The test sites will facilitate testing and research of drone technologies to provide scientific data on the future integration of these aircraft safely with other air traffic. Congress mandated that UAS be integrated into the national airspace by 2015. While Texas already has laws in place prohibiting the private use of drones to spy on a person or place of residence, there are lots of ways drones can be used that don't come with Orwellian shades of Big Brother watching, George said.

Part of the goal of the FAA project is to be completely separate from all things military with this project anyway -- perhaps because the idea of having military drones flying in our own country instead of somewhere we don't really know about is kind of freaky -- and the Corpus Christi proposal fits all those requirements, unlike some other pitches. "According to the request for proposal, the FAA wants the test sites to be independent of the military control and military-restricted airspace," George said. "Our proposal doesn't rely on using restricted airspace to do our testing and it doesn't rely on military facilities to do our command and control."

This program will totally be focused on using drones for more benign activities like mapping sea grass, detecting oil spills and hot spots in wildfires, monitoring hurricanes and counting herds (for ranchers), George said. And this is the chance for Texas to get in on the ground floor of this thing. Projections say it's going to be a multimillion-dollar industry for the United States, but not in a 1984-ish way. Nope, they'll just be used for trees and oil. Sure.

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