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‘Sky’s the limit’

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico has played a huge role in developing the military drones that have changed the face of war in places like Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Many of those systems were tested at military bases here, while the state’s national laboratories, research universities and a number of private companies contributed significantly to their development.

Now, as the Federal Aviation Administration prepares to open the nation’s civilian skies to unmanned aircraft systems by 2015, New Mexico hopes to position itself as a key player in what many expect will be a revolution in commercial aviation.

This map shows New Mexico State University’s test airspace for unmanned aircraft systems, the only such testing airspace in the U.S. authorized by the FAA.

This map shows New Mexico State University’s test airspace for unmanned aircraft systems, the only such testing airspace in the U.S. authorized by the FAA.

Unmanned aircraft are expected to be used in a huge range of activities that include remote monitoring of everything from pipelines and transmission systems to rangelands, coastlines and international borders. That could spur a boom in economic activity as companies rush to build and operate new aircraft and control systems. Some experts project nearly a $90 billion impact on the U.S. economy, with more than 100,000 new jobs created by 2025.


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The state has a head start on gaining a foothold in the industry, in large part because New Mexico State University has operated the only FAA-certified flight test center for unmanned aircraft systems in the nation since 2008, allowing local scientists and engineers to assist in the evaluation and development of a broad range of UAS technology.

“New Mexico provides an excellent model for how to do things,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Washington, D.C. “That experience gives the state a tremendous advantage in competing for a slice of the industry. Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery, and most places want to plagiarize what New Mexico has done.”

But New Mexico will face stiff competition as other states vie to set up six new test centers, in addition to the one operated by NMSU, which the FAA is expected to authorize later this year.

Toscano’s association projects a huge boom in public and private investment in unmanned aircraft development if the FAA meets its 2015 target date for rules and regulations that would govern the integration of drones into civilian airspace.

In a report last March, the association estimated that unmanned aircraft activity would have an $82 billion impact on the U.S. economy, with nearly 104,000 new jobs created, in the first 10 years after unmanned systems start operating in domestic airspace.

Honeywell tests its micro air vehicle, known as the T-Hawk, at the company’s Albuquerque plant in 2008. (PHOTO COURTESY of HONEYWELL)

Honeywell tests its micro air vehicle, known as the T-Hawk, at the company’s Albuquerque plant in 2008. (PHOTO COURTESY of HONEYWELL)

The Teal Group, a Virginia-based aerospace and defense analysis firm, projected an even higher impact, with $89 billion in unmanned aircraft spending from 2015-2025.

Agriculture and public safety are expected to account for about 90 percent of the activity. That includes an array of security applications, such as assistance in fighting wildfires, rescue and recovery during natural disasters and emergencies, and reconnaissance and surveillance for police forces.


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In agriculture, unmanned aircraft systems could replace crop dusters. And they could lower costs for monitoring crops in precision agriculture, which today relies on satellite systems to scour fields for things like plant disease, hydration and growth rates.

“It’s revolutionary technology that will change how we do things and make life better for folks,” Toscano said. “With weather monitoring, for example, if we could get just five minutes more notice of tornadoes, think how that would affect people’s lives. It’s a game changer.”

But before that happens, the FAA must write new rules and regulations for use of unmanned aircraft systems in civilian airspace. That means making sure they are safe for domestic skies. And, while the FAA is generally focused on safety issues, the government is also facing growing concerns from civil rights advocates about the potential for privacy abuse.

Privacy worries

“This is new territory,” said Ellen Shearer, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, which studies and educates about privacy as a national security issue. “There’s some case law around airplanes and helicopters, but drones can be as small as the palm of your hand, or smaller. Where’s the ability to have privacy in one’s home or backyard when drones can get so close without people even being aware of them?”

The NMSU Aerostar unmanned aircraft flies over the Rio Grande performing an agricultural support mission. (PHOTO COURTESY OF NMSU)

The NMSU Aerostar unmanned aircraft flies over the Rio Grande performing an agricultural support mission. (PHOTO COURTESY OF NMSU)

Such controversy has made advocates sensitive to the term “drones.”

“It brings up connotations of the military, rockets and weapons,” Toscano said. “We prefer to call them unmanned aircraft systems that make things better for people.”

Those types of issues and the complexity of writing new laws for a whole new industry could make the 2015 target date optimistic, said Steve Hottman, director of NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory, which manages the university’s UAS Test Flight Center.

“2015 is a very soft date,” Hottman said. “There may be plans by then for how this will all happen. But people who expect to be able to go out and operate systems that year may be disappointed.”

To start laying the groundwork, the FAA is expected to approve six additional test sites around the country by year-end. At least 37 states have submitted applications, reflecting a competitive scramble to stake out advantages before industry floodgates open.

N.M. tested Predator

It’s the first competition New Mexico faces. The state has been front and center in research and development since the 1990s, when the military was working to build the drones that are now commonplace on battlefields.

The first test flights for the Predator aircraft, for example, which has been widely used in Iraq and Afghanistan, took place in New Mexico, said Leonard Ligon, operations manager at the Alaska Center for Unmanned Systems Integration. Ligon served in New Mexico in the 1990s as the U.S. Department of Defense’s aerospace manager for unmanned vehicles.

“The very first time the Predator flew beyond military special aerospace was in 1995 out of Fort Sumner,” Ligon said. “It was an extensive operation from the Sandias to the Texas border.”

The state’s national laboratories and research universities helped develop a lot of the military’s drone technology, as did private companies here. Honeywell Defense Space Electronic Systems in Albuquerque, for example, played a key role in building that company’s micro air vehicle known as the T-Hawk, a 17-pound apparatus just 14 inches in diameter that can hover and stare over places and zoom in on features on the ground.

NMSU leading UAS

NMSU, which has worked with the military since the 1990s on unmanned aircraft technology, gained its first limited FAA authorization for systems testing in 2001 in a 5,000-square-mile zone. However, after the FAA approved the UAS Test Flight Center in 2008, NMSU gained access to a 15,000-square-mile swath of territory that runs along most of the border from El Paso to Lordsburg and from there north to Socorro.

Over the years, NMSU has worked with dozens of private companies, including such giants as Boeing and Northrop Grumman, to develop systems for military and civilian applications. Among other things, NMSU played a central part in creating the “sense-and-avoid” technology that keeps unmanned vehicles from colliding with other aircraft or objects. That’s key to integrating such vehicles into civilian airspace.

NMSU has done testing and evaluation for private organizations and federal agencies on unmanned aircraft deployment to monitor rangelands, crops and border zones, and to assist in wildfires and post-disaster recovery situations.

UAS infrastructure

The university has a 15,000-square-foot hangar and 10 unmanned aircraft at the Las Cruces Municipal Airport for testing, the largest of which has a 22-foot wing span, Hottman said. It also has high-tech instruments to test aircraft engines and other components.

As the civilian unmanned aircraft industry opens to competition, New Mexico hopes to draw on its broad expertise in developing the technology, plus the state’s wide open airspace and year-round sunny skies that make it ideal for flying, said state Economic Development Secretary Jon Barela.

Thanks to those attributes, in May, Fortune magazine named New Mexico one of nine states “poised to dominate the drone economy.”

“No pun intended, I think the sky’s the limit for (unmanned aircraft system) activity here,” Barela said. “We have incomparable weather and terrain, excellent research and development infrastructure in place, and a well-trained labor force. This is one of the targeted industries we want to develop.”

New Mexico is unlikely to attract the kind of major unmanned aircraft-related manufacturing that is concentrated in places like Southern California, where companies like AeroVironment and General Atomics are based, Hottman said. But it could well attract smaller-scale manufacturers and technology companies that do research and development and testing and evaluation related to unmanned aircraft.