Setback For Drones: Texas City Rejects Testing

By Lorne Matalon
November 20, 2013
Hernan Rozemberg
An unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone.

ALPINE, Texas — The Federal Aviation Administration's plans to test an unmanned aerial aircraft system (UAS) at Casparis Municipal Airport in Alpine, Texas have been rejected unanimously by the city council of Alpine, Texas.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi was hoping to use the airport in Alpine to test drones for commercial and industrial use.

The program is called the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Initiative. It's lead by Texas A&M and other academic and industrial partners working with the FAA.

The FAA wants to introduce drones to U.S. airspace. By law they must be tested before they’re
integrated into the nation’s aviation system.

Arizona, California Nevada and Texas are among 24 states competing to host six drone testing sites.

Alpine Mayor Avinash Rangra says he has yet to receive substantive answers to what he calls basic questions.

“We have no idea what the hell they plan to do," he said before the vote.

"My concern is about privacy and my concern is about when they’re flying all over what kind of control they’re going to be exercising," Rangra said.

Last year, Congress told the FAA to introduce drones in to the federal airspace system by 2015.

But the agency has missed numerous deadlines for that to happen. Between privacy and liability concerns, the effort has been a slog.

In Texas, the FAA has directed one of its academic partners, Texas A&M to get a test site. The agency reasoned that the Big Bend region of west Texas is a place to test drones without affecting commercial air traffic.

But that premise was rejected following a public presentation by the university’s project leader. The school claims drones nationwide would generate 150,000 jobs and $8 billion in revenue each year.

City Councillor Jim Fitzgerald wasn’t swayed. Ultimately he and his fellow councillors signaled that safety and privacy trump any potential economic benefit this sparsely populated patch of the Texas borderland might realize from airport fees and related revenue.

“The guy said 3,000 miles, come on," he said referring to a boundless patch of borderland targeted for testing.

"That’s a whole lot of dirt. And it just didn’t seem like he had the right thing where he could says what was good about it.”

Proponents say drones will cut costs on surveillance of wildlife, livestock, oil pipelines and vehicle traffic, not to mention search-and-rescue, and all activities currently conducted by large, manned aircraft. For opponents, the debate centers principally on privacy concerns.

Oscar Cobos is a private citizen who helped quarterback a petition of 300 signatures against testing.

“There were still a lot of questions unanswered," he said following the vote. "If were trying to present something I would’ve at least presented the facts. And there were no facts here tonight, just a lot of things left in the dark.”

Dr. Ron George of Texas A&M says the setback is just temporary.

“We thought we had it made, to be honest with you,” George told a reporter as people filed out of the council meeting.

He likens resistance to drones to the opposition that owners of horses had to the advent of cars.

“And we will find ourselves a launch and recovery site in the Big Bend region to test these aircraft,” George said.

The FAA is an agency that deals with technology. It concedes it has little expertise in Fourth Amendment issues of privacy.

It says five years after gaining access to United States airspace, close to 8,000 commercial and industrial drones will be flying. The agency has just published privacy guidelines.

But there are pressing privacy and liability concerns for people living near one proposed test site.

Lorne Matalon with additional reporting by Alice Quinlan, KRTS, Marfa, Texas