Lone Star UAS Center Partnerships Cover Skies, Borders and Forest Fires

Texas’ borders, skies, and fire prevention efforts are now linked with Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi to test unmanned aircraft at the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center (LSUASC) of Excellence and Innovation.

The Center recently announced collaborations with NASA, the Texas A&M Forest Service, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.

Research collaboration with state and federal government agencies is a major piece of LSUASC’s plan for financial sustainability.

The LSUASC (www.lsuasc.tamucc.edu) operates one of six Federal Aviation Administration test sites for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly called drones or remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA). The test sites have been established to support public- and private-sector entities as they adopt UAS technologies into their operations.

Studies indicate an economic impact of about $6.5 billion and 8,256 jobs statewide in the decade following full integration of UAS into the national airspace system.

Each partnership focuses on a significant slice of UAS integration and technological application.

NASA for air traffic management

This collaboration with NASA seeks to address many operational and technological challenges, including separation and collision avoidance. Working with NASA, the center will support testing a system that coordinates and monitors small UAS flights at altitudes less than 500 feet.

The system is designed to manage flights at low altitudes by small UAS operating beyond visual line-of-sight of operators on the ground.

Testing the system involves simulations of a rural, low-density traffic scenario, and is expected to begin in August. The goal is to link existing LSUASC test ranges, the Mission Control Center, mobile mission control centers, and a live, virtual and constructive simulation environment to the NASA system. This will enable collaborative research in a realistic environment with academic, industry, and government collaborators.

“Camber Corporation, our lead systems integrator, has recruited a team of top-notch software and systems-integration engineers for the test site program,” said Dr. Luis Cifuentes, Vice President for Research, Commercialization and Outreach, and interim executive director of the LSUASC. “They have paved the way for A&M-Corpus Christi and the LSUASC to participate in this nationally significant project with NASA.”

Monitoring Fire Risk

Drones have potential to identify hot spots from the air and help safeguard firefighters on the ground for the Texas A&M Forest Service. Such aerial information could have provided vital data during the fires in Bastrop County in 2011.

The forest service recently completed a communications exercise that established a video link to send flight-test video between the service’s operations center in College Station and the Lone Star Center’s Mission Control in Corpus Christi.

The exercise was the initial step in developing a close working relationship between the state agency and the LSUASC. The goal is to integrate communications between the two groups to assure data remotely generated using UAS supports the forest service’s mission of fire detection, prevention and suppression.

The forest service’s emergency operations center in College Station monitors fire risk, fire incidents and the availability and use of firefighting equipment and personnel across the state. It provides statewide situational awareness and strategic oversight and management of all emergency response activities.

“This exercise was preliminary to building out to a full communications capability for collaborative operations with the Forest Service,” said Jerry Hendrix, chief engineer for the FAA UAS test site operated by LSUASC. “At capacity, we will be able to support the agency’s UAS flight operations with full situational awareness, just as we do on our test ranges.”

Drone Safety on the Border

Safe drone flight testing is critical to both the LSUASC and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi. After discussions and tours of each group’s UAS ranges and facilities, the two are jointly addressing unmanned aircraft operational scenarios.

“We are required to operate our test site with utmost safety,” said Cifuentes. “Our safety concerns coalesce with those of our CBP neighbors. We believe our information sharing and collaboration will continue to be productive and in the public interest.”

The Texas border region has complex airspace requirements for state, commercial, and general aviation, and also serves as a major flight training area for the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

CBP operates a high-altitude MQ-9 remotely-piloted aircraft to conduct surveillance operations along the U.S.-Mexico border. LSUASC operates at ranges in several regions of Texas, with test-site operations currently originating from Charles R. Johnson Airport in Port Mansfield.

As LSUASC develops its capabilities to monitor commercial and aviation traffic, working with the Border Protection facility adds an additional layer of situational awareness and safety to test site operations.

“Our plans include sharing technologies and information to de-conflict traffic and promote even greater flight situational awareness,” Cifuentes said. “It’s all part of our mandate to help the FAA ensure safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system.”

Other Agencies Expected for Future Partnerships

In addition to working with these agencies, LSUASC is also talking with other state and federal agencies.

“Working with state and federal agencies is a major component of our plan to build and sustain the LSUASC as we fulfill our obligation to FAA to operate a safe UAS test site,” said Cifuentes. “We have a great opportunity here to support a national initiative as we build a research center that benefits the state, this institution and – most importantly – future generations of Texas students.”

UAS technologies are expected to change the way data is collected for research, business, and safety. Expected uses include search-and-rescue missions, surveying disaster areas or accident scenes; mapping coastlines to observe changes over time; and inventorying wildlife, habitats, agriculture, and pipelines through remote areas.

“This represents a major step for our UAS research center, which was created by the Texas A&M System Board of Regents in October 2013,” said Cifuentes. “We believe this project will open many doors for our statewide team of UAS research institutions. And, of course, whenever you increase the research capacities of an institution of higher learning, you increase educational opportunities for generations of students.”