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Udall tours NMSU drone facility

LAS CRUCES – U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-Santa Fe, on Tuesday toured New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Site at the Las Cruces International Airport. Udall recently helped the facility, operated through the university’s Physical Science Laboratory, receive designation from the Federal Aviation Administration as a designated UAS Test Site.

President Barack Obama signed into law a provision authorizing the designation in July, which allows NMSU to compete with six other test sites across the country for federal projects. NMSU’s UAS Flight Test Center, created in 2007, was the FAA’s first UAS test center and served as a model for the other six that were authorized by the FAA in 2012.

However, NMSU was stripped of the designation when the other six were created. Udall’s provision, originally included as an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill, restored the designation.

“The big advantage we have over the other six test sites is great flight test weather,” said Dennis “Zak” Zaklan, the facility’s deputy director. “We like to say 375 days a year. But we also have 15,000 square miles of approved airspace in southwest New Mexico.”

The UAS, which partners with public and private entities to provide drone service for a variety of projects, is funded through grants and contracts.

The facility operates seven drones of its own, all with FAA Public Airworthiness Status. They range in size from 2.8 pounds to 485 pounds, and include multicopters, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

For Udall’s visit, NMSU personnel demonstrated the facility’s largest aircraft, the Aerostar B, a fixed-wing aircraft capable of flying at an altitude of 18,000 feet. The drone, which has a wingspan of 24.6 feet, can carry a payload of up to 110 pounds.

FAA regulations require the drones to be flown within sight of the operator at all times.

Henry Cathey, deputy director of NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory, said the facility serves a variety of purposes.

“For many companies, if they’re developing an aircraft, they may not want to develop all of the facilities and infrastructure we can provide,” Cathey said. “If they’re developing a sensor, they might just want to fly it on an aircraft — and we would provide that.”

The facility is capable of providing certified pilots, aircraft and services for a variety of applications, Cathey said.

The UAS Flight Test Site has provided drone surveillance for agricultural applications, the inspection of mines and infrastructure, and has partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to provide thermal and high-definition images of Elephant Butte Dam.

Udall serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FAA.

“This is a self-sufficient operation within New Mexico State University,” Udall said. “They don’t take any state funding or funding from the university — they support themselves. They provide services to everybody.”

Udall said his Senate staff will continue to work with the facility to get the word out about the work they do.

“I think people don’t know that this jewel is here,” Udall said. “And it could well spin off industry into this region or throughout New Mexico for that matter. We’re brainstorming how we can plug in entrepreneurs and other agencies, and make this facility a benefit to the whole region.”

Damien Willis may be reached at 575-541-5468, dawillis@lcsun-news.com or @damienwillis on Twitter.

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©2016 the Las Cruces Sun-News (Las Cruces, N.M.)

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