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Corpus Christi chosen as site for unmanned aircraft research

After a rigorous 10-month selection process involving 25 proposals from 24 states, the Federal Aviation Administration has chosen Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi as one of six unmanned air vehicle (UAV) research and test site operators across the country.

TAMU Corpus Christi is already well known for its research into the potential commercial applications of so-called “drone” aircraft technology.

The FAA said Texas A&M plans to develop UAV operational safety requirements and protocols for airworthiness testing.

The research at the six sites is meant to address safety and privacy concerns about drones.

Test site operations will continue until at least Feb. 13, 2017.

The FAA is expected to release regulations concerning commercial use of drones in 2015.

From oilfield exploration to farming, a number of private industries believe there a many helpful commercial uses of the unmanned aircraft.

Governmental use of drones is controversial, but likewise could serve a good public purpose.

For example, some experts say a UAV could have shown changes in the direction of the fire that killed 19 Arizona firefighters this past summer.

Some broadcasters believe newsrooms could use UAV’s in place of more costly helicopters to acquire aerial images for stories and traffic reports.

One recent study concludes commercial use of drones could have an $82 billion economic impact in the first 10 years of authorized commercial use, with the impact in Texas worth around $6.5 billion.

The FAA said it is confident that the agency’s research goals of system safety and data gathering, aircraft certification, command and control link issues, control station layout and certification, ground and airborne “sense and avoid”, and environmental impact will be met.

The FAA will have oversight of each test site and will provide strict safety standards.

Among other requirements, test site operators must comply with federal, state, and other laws protecting an individual’s right to privacy, have publicly available privacy policies and a written plan for data use and retention, and conduct an annual review of privacy practices that allows for public comment. 

The Texas Legislature last year passed the Texas Privacy Act, HB 912 by Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, a bill aimed at providing some privacy protections from aerial “surveillance” by drones.

HB 912 says “a person commits an offense if the person uses an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or privately owned real property in this state with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image.”

It creates a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500.

In its original form, the bill would have banned use of unmanned aircraft to collect aerial video or photographs in most cases and created civil and criminal penalties.  

TAB successfully amended the bill in the Senate to clarify the technology could be used for newsgathering, but Rep. Gooden insisted on that language being removed when the bill went to conference committee because the bill did not contain an express prohibition on such activities. Several other clarifications, including one for the motion picture industry, added by the Senate also were dropped.

While the new law includes a number of drone use exceptions for specific industries, it does not define “surveillance” and it is unclear to what degree, if any, the law would serve as a barrier to journalists using drones in reporting if and when the FAA allows such use.

The bill is sufficiently complex that a representative of prosecutors around the state testified at the Senate committee hearing that it could be difficult to enforce.

Questions?  Contact TAB's Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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