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New Mexico could see boom in drone use

By   /   June 14, 2013  /   No Comments

Photo courtesy New Mexico State University

DRONE TESTING: Out in the landscape of southern New Mexico is the only FAA-approved site for testing drones.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

The use of drones is a hot-button issue across the country,  but only New Mexico is home to the lone flight test center approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

With the controversy surrounding these unmanned aerial vehicles, state officials and potential business interests are keen to stress their positive applications.

“There has been a lot issues in the press about privacy,” Steve Hottman, director of the Physical Science Laboratory at New Mexico State University, told New Mexico Watchdog. “But there are a lot of different uses for these platforms.”

The university based in Las Cruces is home to the Unmanned Aerial Systems  Technical Analysis and Applications Center, which was established in 1999 with the mission to “promote safe integration of UAS in the National Airspace System.” Hottman says six drones are in use at NMSU, including three radio-controlled aircraft trainers with wingspans of 22 feet.

“We’ve worked with these systems for 40-50 years,” Hottman said, highlighting the lab’s work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and the FAA.

New Mexico Tech has also worked with drone technology at the university’s research center in Playas, and so has Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, where it was reported last month that 678 pilot and sensor operator students were enlisted this fiscal year to scan the skies.

In recent months, the use of drones by the Obama Administration against suspected terrorists and their potential use domestically has lead to plenty of debate.

In a May speech, President Obama defended his use of drones to assassinate suspected extremists overseas, including Americans, while at the same time asking lawmakers to join him in setting modest new safeguards for their use. In March, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has attacked the Obama administration’s in a Senate filibuster, saying it was setting a precedent that the federal government could order the killing of American citizens on U.S. soil without first convicting them in court

This week, the state senate in Oregon passed legislation aimed at regulating police and government use of drones. That law would ban official drone use unless authorized by statute. Drones would be allowed for emergency situations such as finding a child lost in the woods or fighting a fire, but police would be restricted in how they can use gathered information.

Hottman said the public’s concerns about drones is “certainly understandable,” but that the purpose of the NMSU program is based on civil applications. “We use them for research and development purposes,” he said.

Hottman said the FAA chose New Mexico State as the location for the flight test center for three reasons:

First, the small population of southern New Mexico is means there are low levels of aviation traffic, and NMSU has access to the restricted air space at the White Sands Missile Range. “From a safety standpoint, it’s a very safe and benign environment” for testing drones, Hottman said.

Second, the climate is good, with plenty of sunny days and clear conditions.

And third, the university’s decades of experience working with drones (although Hottman said he prefers the term “unmanned aircraft systems”) is considered a plus.

While the use of drones in military operations is controversial and secretive, NMSU doesn’t hide the fact that it’s considered a leader in drone technology and testing.

The university has issued a series of news releases highlighting the test center’s use through the Physical Science Lab, including one last March hailing NMSU’s partnership with AeroVironment, a California energy technology company, to study the safety of small, unmanned aircraft system operations at night.

Among the positive things that drones can do, Hottman said, is:

*Search and Rescue: In Alaska, drones are used to see through smoke in forest fires, inspect fisheries and work with the Department of Energy on Alaska’s treacherous north slope to monitor the ice pack.

*Sense and Avoid: Hottman says drones are excellent in detecting aircraft entering immediate airspace.

*Use in what’s called “dull, dirty and dangerous missions”: Drones can fly near the ground to inspect pipelines for ruptures and can be equipped with infrared sensors and transmitters to send back images and information about potential weather disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes.

People like Economic Development Department Secretary Jon Barela point to New Mexico State’s drone program, and instead of controversy, see economic potential for the state.

“The UAS has incredible growth potential here in New Mexico,” Barela told New Mexico Watchdog. “We have perfect flying weather, we have perfect candidates and facilities and personnel that is absolutely fantastic for job growth.”

The FAA recently announced it will authorize six more sites for drone testing across the country — so whether you love or hate drones, the industry is expanding.

“We have incredible opportunities to grow this business,” Barela said, adding that the Pentagon’s budget for drones “will grow dramatically.”

Last month, Fortune magazine reported that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International placed New Mexico among the states most likely to see growth in drone development. The only states listed ahead of New Mexico were California, Washington, Texas, Ohio, Indiana and Florida.

“Drones have a negative connotation,” Barela said, “but the fact of the matter is that these UAS’s have a great civilian application as well, things like fight forest fires…border security…It’s going to be a growth industry and we need to be a part of that.”

***

Click here to take a look at NMSU’s web page about its UAS Flight Test Center.

Click here to see a review by the federal government’s General Accountability Office on unmanned aerial systems. The NMSU facility is highlighted on page 37 of the report.

And click here to see the pitch on the Economic Development Department’s website to potential defense and aerospace businesses.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rob@nmwatchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

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