Posted: Jan 16, 2014 9:39 PM
Updated: Jan 17, 2014 9:42 AM
SARITA - The drones are coming to South Texas.
Researchers are testing the unmanned aerial vehicles just north of the Rio Grande Valley.
Some of the first flights happened at a ranch near Sarita. The area is one of six approved sites for test flights of the unmanned aerial vehicles.
Researches from Texas A&M Corpus Christi on Thursday flew an RS16 Unmanned Aerial System.
The test flights are being done in the wake of the federal government's approval of drones for commercial use in U.S. airspace.
The researchers have to make sure the drones can operate safely around regular aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration expects more than 7,000 drones could eventually fly in U.S. airspace. They could be used for anything from looking for oil spills to fighting wildfires.
Thursday's flight was scheduled to last two hours. The craft was prepared to cruise at 55 miles per hour at an altitude of 2,800 feet.
"They're physically out mapping the shoreline and some of the salt grass developments out there," John Huguley said.
Huguley and other researchers set up a command center to monitor the drone's progress and collect data.
The goal is to develop a system that allows drones to communicate with manned aircraft, researchers said.
"We have to develop the technology and the procedures such than an unmanned aircraft can let manned aircraft know where it is and the manned aircraft can let the unmanned aircraft know where it is," Dr. David Bridges said.
The system would prevent mid-air collisions, Bridges said.
The team also is working to ensure that a permanent command center in Corpus Christi can maintain contact with the drone at all times. So far, this week there have been a couple of times when the drone lost signal.
"There are plenty of times that an unmanned aircraft will do what you call lost link, where it's not communicating to the ground station," Huguley said.
"The beauty of this unmanned aircraft is that it has a preprogrammed system to return to base."
High-tech companies from around the country now are looking to South Texas where testing and development will continue for months. People involved in the project said it will help fuel the South Texas economy.
The project is expected to create $260 million in new economic activity and about 1,200 jobs.