Alpine residents were recently surprised to learn that unmanned aircraft systems – also known as drones – could be coming to the Alpine-Casparis Municipal Airport. In early 2013, a Texas-based group approached former Alpine City Manager Chuy Garcia, seeking a potential land use agreement at the airport. Garcia said the city was interested.
When Chuck Harrington became Alpine’s interim city manager, he thought the city and public needed to know more.
On Wednesday, June 19, the group behind the drone project presented to Alpine’s Airport Board of Advisors and about 30 area residents. The group answered questions, addressed public anxiety, and described a future where unmanned aircraft become an increasingly normal part of American’s lives. Area residents and local pilots expressed a variety of questions and concerns about how drones would impact the airport and the community at large.
The airport, which is owned and operated by the city of Alpine, could potentially be part of the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative (LSUAS), a project led by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and the Texas Engineering Experiment Station, in collaboration with other educational institutions and private companies. Their hope is to make Texas a hub for drone technology and research and bring money and jobs to the state.
LSUAS wants to lease space at the airport through 2017. But, for now, this is only hypothetical. The A&M Corpus Christi group must first be awarded one of only six contracts offered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test unmanned aircraft systems and are competing with over 50 other groups, representing 37 states.
Establishing these test ranges is part of a larger push by the FAA to develop technology and guidelines to smoothly integrate drones into U.S. airspace. Alpine City Council member Mike Davidson says it seems the FAA is determined to get drones in the air, whether Americans like it or not.
“I would say that once the FAA finds a system that they use and find it adequate and approve it, be it in 2015 or 2018, that all airports are likely to see drone traffic. This is a step toward integrating drone traffic, UAV traffic, into the United States airspace,” said Davidson.
The FAA will decide on the six test ranges by the end of 2013. If Texas A&M Corpus Christi group is chosen to manage a test range in Texas, City Council would vote on whether or not to enter into a lease agreement with the university. If the Alpine City Council approves it, that is. In that case, drones taking off from the airport would fly in airspace over Presidio and Jeff Davis Counties.
Ron George, a Senior Research Development Officer at Texas A&M, gave a presentation to the board and fielded questions for about an hour and a half. George emphasized the projected economic growth of the unmanned aircraft system industry. Nationally, it’s estimated the drone industry could create 150,000 jobs and generate $8 billion a year by 2020. A&M Corpus Christi and LSUASI believe Texas could pull in over $800 million annually and create more than 8,000 jobs by 2025.
But many questions remained. Board members asked George about safety. According to the Board, Alpine’s airport is one of the busiest airports in Texas to operate without a control tower. The initiative would bring more air traffic to an already bustling airport. George said how much traffic exactly would be a compromise between what the FAA wanted and what the City of Alpine would allow.
Cade Woodward is on the Alpine Airport advisory board. As a pilot, Woodward is particularly interested in collision avoidance.
“Right now, any other aircraft has to have a pilot-in-command on board, and when you take that aspect away, obviously there are some concerns,” said Woodward.
George stated that all drones taking off from the airport would be followed by a chase plane, manned by a human pilot.
Board members also raised concerns about coordination with the number of private airstrips in the area, as well as over varying levels of communication technology on planes in the region. People in the Big Bend have a variety of aircraft, and pilots will often take off from private airstrips without notifying Albuquerque.
George fielded questions for about an hour and a half.
Other issues raised by residents: how would drones impact migratory birds in the area? Would it hurt tourism? Who would be held responsible for accidents? And how would it affect resident’s privacy?
Many specifics remain unanswered. George says much of their proposal details must be kept secret due to the competitive nature of the FAA selection process.
The full proposal will be made public following an award to A&M by the FAA. Then it would be up to the Alpine City Council to vote on whether or not to go ahead with the lease agreement.
By the end of the meeting, most of the boards larger concerns were addressed, and they voted to OK the city moving forward with a possible lease agreement.
– by Rachel Osier Lindley