Commercial drone testing could soon join the military unmanned aircraft flying at Fort Hood.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday it approved Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi as the research headquarters for 11 Texas test sites working to develop drones for commercial use. Five other states also were selected to test the unmanned aircraft.
One of those 11 sites proposed for testing in Texas is Fort Hood’s Robert Gray Army Airfield.
“We don’t have any formal agreement with Fort Hood, but we have a very productive conversation underway at Fort Hood, which we plan to continue,” said Ron George, a senior research development officer at the university.
The university’s Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence and Innovation is currently flying the modified RS-16 Arcturus — smaller than the Army’s Shadow, but with a similar launcher and nearly 13-foot wingspan — in FAA-approved airspace south of Corpus Christi in Kenedy County.
George said researchers are interested in Fort Hood because Robert Gray is currently the only airport in the United States where civilian commercial flights, military aircraft and military unmanned aircraft all operate on the same runway. Unmanned aircraft at Fort Hood have been flying since 1995.
“They’re doing it right and it’s a model operation,” he said. “I believe the whole country has a lot to learn about how they do it.”
The university said in a release that the test sites will facilitate testing and research of unmanned aerial systems technologies to provide scientific data on the future integration of these aircraft safely with other air traffic. Congress mandated that UAS be integrated into the national airspace by 2015. One of the main research goals is finding the safest methods for unmanned planes to sense other aircraft and take measures to avoid collisions.
In a separate program, the Army announced in December it was involved in discussions with the FAA and other agencies regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems in the U.S. National Airspace System, according to Viva Kelley, director of the Army’s Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts Office.
Fort Hood — and its fleet of unmanned Gray Eagles — is one of four sites that will be part of that study. The results will be published by 2015, and will become part of the SC-228 Minimum Operational Performance Standards report, Kelley said.