The senior research and development officer for Texas A&M University said the correct term is “unmanned aircraft.”
According to George, Bee County residents could be looking up into the sky and seeing pilotless planes overhead in the next couple of years.
For the past year, George said he has been working full time on getting the Federal Aviation Administration to choose South Texas for testing the aircraft.
“Texas is gold,” George said. The FAA shows the airspace over South and West Texas to be uncluttered and perfectly suited for testing unmanned aircraft without the threat of midair collisions.
The federal agency believes it is time to begin integrating unmanned aircraft into all the nation’s air space, George said.
The development officer said it costs about
$2 million for the preparation of a competitive proposal to be turned in to the FAA. But in Texas, the A&M system is teaming with the state and private investors to prepare a proposal.
George said his group has been spending seven days a week and between eight and 10 hours a day on the effort.
“Our team fell in love with the Beeville airport,” George told the board. “It is an ideal location. It’s just what we need to get large aircraft into the sky.”
Beeville’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico is one of the attractive aspects of the location, George said. Once over the gulf, unmanned aircraft would be able to soar higher and higher.
“We’re talking drones here?” County Judge David Silva asked George.
That was when the A&M staffer set the board straight on terminology.
“A drone is stupid,” George said. Drones are what pilots shoot down in training for air-to-air combat.
Unmanned aircraft can be operated entirely by computers which plan their flights from takeoff to landing.
George said $10,000 unmanned helicopters currently are being used to manage agriculture in Japan. That is much less expensive than using a human crew to fly a larger helicopter, he said.
The project leader said the aircraft, many of which would be small helicopters, would be able to photograph weather and current situations in the gulf as well as photograph pipelines and monitor agriculture.
George said the unmanned helicopters are flown by humans using an iPad.
The aircraft could follow pipelines using high definition cameras to record what they see. Aircraft flown by pilots are not nearly as efficient as the smaller aircraft would be, and there is no reason to pay a highly trained pilot to guide the aircraft.
A&M has been flying the RS-16 (Recon System-16) aircraft over the Gulf of Mexico for years now.
According to an article published by Texas A&M University, the first RS-16s were flown over the gulf in October 2011.
The planes have 13-foot wingspans and can remain aloft for 12-16 hours on two gallons of gasoline.
“I hope you can see that we’re highly excited about this program,” George said. “It’s all I’ve been doing for about a year.
“Texas is ready for this,” the project manager said. The aircraft could be used by the Department of Homeland Security, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Defense.
George said several government agencies and private companies would pay to come to South Texas to test their unmanned aircraft.
When BDA Board President Laura Fischer asked what the project would need at Chase Field, George started by saying the hangar space would be a main attraction.
“Your hangars are golden,” he told the board. He said the BDA could expect some of the testing aircraft to be housed in the hangars.
But the uncluttered air space could be one of the greatest assets for the program. He said that in 2004, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a study of air space around the country. The results of the study showed the safest air space locations in the country in terms of the risk of midair collisions.
“We’ve got the safest air space in the country with the possible exception of Alaska,” George said.
He went on to mention some of the other states that were in contention for the project, including Oklahoma, Ohio, North Dakota, Florida and others.
In all, 40 states are preparing packages to be submitted to the FAA.
George said the project would last five years and the government would be spending about $8 billion and employing about 15,000 persons across the nation.
Although the program would last only five years, George said it would be unlikely that the industry would leave Beeville when it ended.
If the Texas A&M proposal is chosen, Beeville probably would not see any aircraft arrive for about 18 months.
Many of the aircraft would be those brought back from “theater” in the Middle East where unmanned aircraft are being used to monitor enemy activity.
The FAA is expected to make its choices at the end of this year.
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.