Just weeks after Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was designated by the FAA as one of six national sites for testing of unmanned aircraft or "drones," there are already test flights underway. "We're just building up experience that will go into operation of the test site," says Dr. David Bridges, Director of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program at Texas A&M. "We're doing some developmental testing of our system, we're looking at some range issues, and we're also going to do some scientific data collection along the shoreline on the Gulf."
This week, researchers began conducting test flights over ranchland and coastal areas of South Texas with A&M's own unmanned aircraft, the RS-16. The coastal regions are a big focus of these early test flights. Dr. Bridges says they are working with scientists who want to see what kind of data the drone can collect. "They do modeling of the land-water interface--as in how far in does the water come and that kind of thing--and so they would like image data to help validate their models." Other research involves mapping underwater in the shallow water regions near the coastline.
South Texas was chosen as a site for the drone research largely because of its vast coastline, but that isn't the only area of focus for the unmanned aircraft. They can also be used to monitor pipeline routes, detect wildfire hotspots or oil spills, and even to keep track of livestock for ranchers. So far, the tests have gone well, but there is much more work to be done before drones can be put into full scientific use. "We are continuing our research and understanding of how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into our national airspace," says Dr. Bridges.