by Mary Tuma
Via Creative Commons Images.
Texas A&M University Corpus Christi won a federal bid to create drone test areas earlier this week, according to the Associated Press, making Texas among the six states to host research sites. Other states include North Dakota, Nevada and New York. Geography, climate, ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, aviation experience and risk factored into the decision.
The 6,000 sq. mile Texas test sites stretches south of Ft. Stockton and Ft. Hood, outside College Station and areas in South Texas outside Beeville and south of Corpus Christi, reports the AP. A&M-Corpus Christi is partnering with the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute and others in the project.
While the Federal Aviation Administration prohibits commercial drone use— relegating drones for military purposes— Congress worked up plans to ensure operational guidelines be developed by 2015. The FAA estimates that up to 7,500 commercial drones could be flying in U.S. airspace within the next five years. The point of the tests sites will be to gauge safety and see if the drones can navigate through airspace hurdles and avoid obstacles (like other aircraft).
The commercial drone industry could mean big money and jobs, according to an industry report that predicted the lifting of drone restrictions may yield more than $8 billion for the state and create around 1,200 jobs in the South Texas area. Drone pilot could make somewhere between $85,000 and $115,000 in annual salary.
As drones slowly make their way into commercial airspace (think Amazon delivery drones), they won't be shedding their trail of controversy any time soon. Linked to surveillance and targeted killings of thousands in the Middle East over the past decade, drones have come under intense criticism from civil liberties and human rights groups, most recently after the death of several civilians attending a wedding celebration in Yemen.
Texas tightened restrictions on civilian use of unarmed aircraft at the start of September. While the law is meant to curb spying on private property and prevent environmentalists/animal rights activists from snapping photos of of livestock ranches or oil pipelines (yes, really, according to the bill's author) it pretty much excludes law enforcement from the rules, allowing police to utilize drones in investigations and forgo obtaining search warrants if they have "reasonable suspicion or probable cause."