Following the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) recent issuance of blanket Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COAs) to the six FAA-designated test sites for unmanned aircraft, the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center (LSUASC) of Excellence and Innovation at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC) is more than ready to help move the budding industry forward.
Dr. Luis Cifuentes, vice president of research, commercialization and outreach at TAMU-CC, as well as interim executive director of LSUASC, and Dr. Ron George, senior research development officer of the university, spoke with Unmanned Aerial Online about what’s in store for the center now that it can operate any UAS weighing under 55 lbs. – provided that they are flown under 200 feet in altitude, in the daytime and within the visual line-of-sight of the operator – anywhere in the U.S., other than near airports and in other restricted airspace.
When it first announced these blanket COAs, the FAA said in a release that it issued them in order to “provide more opportunities for research that may help the agency integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace more quickly and easily.”
According to Cifuentes, LSUASC’s research will be shared throughout the industry. UAS testing generates “a lot of new information” about the technology, he says, but the “beauty” of giving the test sites the authority to do these tests is that the research will be “shared with everybody immediately,” including the FAA and the five other test sites.
The blanket COA will also allow the TAMU-CC test site to lend its UAS knowledge to others throughout the entire country, Cifuentes notes.
“We can go to a university that wants to get going and make it possible for them to do so,” he explains, “while, at the same time, learning from us and adopting the processes that the FAA expects everybody to follow.”
“We can basically say, ‘Tell us what you want to do, and we’ll take you up to 200 feet,'” says George.
Locally, George notes, he has received many inquiries from entities looking to get involved with the small UAS sector through LSUASC’s blanket COA, which has “really opened the door to our being able to support their efforts,” he says.
“These folks are coming out of the woodwork now,” he explains, adding that they are willing to invest money, time and effort into UAS research.
“That’s the kind of synergy that’s beginning to build,” and part of that, George says, stems from the issuance of the blanket COAs, which are providing a path – through LSUASC, “located in a business incubator” – for these entities to become involved in the sector.
George adds that the center has received “enormous public support and praise” from its recent disaster-relief efforts performed through the blanket COA, in which a LSUASC team, along with Dr. Robin Murphy of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University in College Station, operated UAS in Wimberley, Texas, after flooding devastated the area.
Cifuentes and George both agree that flying over 200 feet in altitude would have provided added benefits, but the team was still able to conduct valuable operations, including searching for missing persons, without going through the process of obtaining an emergency COA.
According to George, the flooding had created 40- to 50-foot-high debris fields along the Blanco River, but by using the drones, the team was able to search the area after volunteers on foot were not able to do so. The vehicles included a senseFly eBee, DJI Phantom and AscTec Falcon 8, which, George notes, was provided by HUVRData of Austin and proved to be valuable for both LSUASC and HUVRData in terms of research.
Once the FAA becomes more confident in the ability of LSUASC and its research partners to safely operate UAS without individual COAs, George explains, what may happen is that the agency will increase the altitude limit or permit VLOS operations for the test sites.
Cifuentes notes that although not everybody ‘has understood the value’ of UAS yet, the blanket COAs are a way to share with the country what the technology is capable of doing and, in turn, accelerate integration into national airspace.