TEXAS (CBS 11 NEWS) – Just weeks after the federal government gave the green light, researchers have started test missions in Texas on unmanned aerial vehicles.
The tiny planes, with no pilots, are the first to test airspace that researchers expect to be filled by planes from private companies by summer. For now, the planes are only flying over a deserted expanse of mudflats and coastline on a massive ranch south of Corpus Christi.
By July though, the Lone Star Unmanned Aerial Systems Center at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, expects flights on 11 approved ranges, located in areas from the Big Bend across to Bryan.
Researchers say they’re receiving as many as 10 inquiries a day from private companies wanting to test at the sites.
It is the beginning of what they hope could create 1,200 jobs and have an $8 Billion economic impact statewide. That’s if they can make the sites safe first.
As the sun came up Thursday, a team prepped the University’s unmanned plane for a mission. The orange and grey plane, with a 13-foot wingspan, and no wheels, was fired into the sky with an air cannon. A small plane with a pilot, followed close behind. They have lost communication with the UAV a few times. It’s one of the hurdles researchers want to fix, before sending more UAV’s up among planes with passengers on them.
“Why they’re not flying around everywhere already, is that they cannot sense and avoid other aircraft,” said Dr. David Bridges, the program director.
The plane is programmed to return home if it loses contact for more than two minutes. Controllers reconnected though, and let the UAV continue on its path. It used a camera to map shorelines while it was up — one of the many uses researchers could see for the planes, once they’re approved for general flight.
“There’s a long way to go, and it needs to happen fast, because there a big driving force behind it… for all the good unmanned systems can do for the nation,” said John Huguley, the mission director.
The site near Corpus Christi is one of just six in the nation the FAA approved. Team members generally agree that access to the coast, varied terrain and wide-open air space led to the approval.
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