Alpine City Council: No Drone Testing

ALPINE, Texas — Plans to test an unmanned aerial aircraft system (UAS) from the Casparis Municipal Airport has been rejected unanimously by the city council of Alpine.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi which has partnered with the Federal Aviation Administration on drone testing was hoping to use the Casparis Municipal Airport in Alpine to test drones for commercial and industrial use. Although UAS testing will likely occur in the Big Bend region of Texas, it won’t occur at Alpine’s airport.

The program is called the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative. It’s lead by Texas A&M and other academic and industrial partners working with the FAA.

The FAA wants to introduce drones to U.S. airspace. By law they must be tested before they’re integrated into the nation’s aviation system.

Arizona, California Nevada and Texas are among 24 states competing to host six drone testing sites.

Alpine Mayor Avinash Rangra says he has yet to receive substantive answers to what he calls basic questions.

“We have no idea what the hell they plan to do,” he said before the vote.

“My concern is about privacy and my concern is about when they’re flying all over what kind of control they’re going to be exercising,” Rangra said.

Last year, Congress told the FAA to introduce drones in to the federal airspace system by 2015.

But the agency has missed numerous deadlines for that to happen. Between privacy and liability concerns, the effort’s been a slog.

In Texas, the FAA has directed one of its academic partners, Texas A&M to get a test site. The agency reasoned that the Big Bend region of far West Texas is a place to test drones without affecting commercial air traffic.

At a public presentation, the university’s project leader made the claim that drones nationwide would generate 150,000 jobs and $8 billion in revenue each year.

City Councillor Jim Fitzgerald wasn’t swayed.

Ultimately the council believed that at least currently, safety and privacy trump any potential economic benefit this sparsely populated patch of the Texas borderland might realize.

“The guy said 3,000 miles, come on,” said Fitzgerald referring to a part of the Big Bend mapped out for testing.

“That’s a whole lot of dirt.”

“And it just didn’t seem like he had the right thing where he could says what was good about it,” he said.

Proponents say drones will cut costs on surveillance of wildlife, livestock, oil pipelines and vehicle traffic not to mention search-and-rescue. For many opponents, the debate hinges on privacy concerns.

Oscar Cobos is a private citizen who helped quarterback a petition of 300 signatures against testing.

“There were still a lot of questions unanswered,” he said following the vote. “If were trying to present something I would’ve at least presented the facts. And there were no facts here tonight, just a lot of things left in the dark.”

Ron George of Texas A&M says the setback is just temporary.

“We thought we had it made, to be honest with you,” George told a reporter as people filed out of the council meeting.

He likens resistance to backpack-sized drones to opposition owners of horses had to the advent of cars.

“And we will find ourselves a launch and recovery site in the Big Bend region to test these aircraft,” George said.

The FAA is an agency that deals with technology. It concedes it has little expertise in Fourth Amendment issues of privacy.

It says five years after gaining access to United States airspace, close to 8,000 commercial and industrial drones will be flying. The agency has just published privacy guidelines.

But there are too many unanswered privacy and liability questions for people living near one proposed test site.

by Lorne Matalon, with additional reporting by Alice Quinlan

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