Local News

Jan 16, 2014 7:31 PM

Drone Testing Starts at Texas A&M Corpus Christi

CORPUS CHRISTI - Texas A&M University Corpus Christi completed some of the first official drone test flights around the country today, as part of the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to study the safety of commercial drones.

It and five other newly named test sites are ramping up efforts to be fully operational in less than six months. Lawmakers in Washington are watching with a careful eye on safety and privacy.

Lawmakers know commercial drones could be the next big economic driver, but of course, there are other big concerns like unwanted surveillance.

That's where these test sites come in. Researchers at Texas A&M Corpus Christi flew unmanned aerial vehicles over the Gulf of Mexico today.

Officials at the Lone Star Unmanned Aerial Systems Center at Texas A&M invited the media inside for a look at their work. The command center allows supervision of testing at 11 different ranges across the state.

One of the primary missions will be to develop and test anti-collision systems for unmanned aircraft.

The state is one of six test locations named late last year by the FAA: Texas, New York, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada and Virginia.

In a hearing yesterday, the head of the FAA described some key concerns to lawmakers, such as mid air collisions and pilot training.

7,500 unmanned aircraft could take flight over the next five years. Potentially big money to businessmen like James Grimsley, hoping to market the devices to other companies.

"It can do those things that humans really don't like to do. We can do them a lot more cheaply," says the president of Design Intelligence.

Privacy advocates are also closely watching the test sites.

"The technology isn't bad. But the technology makes it easier to do bad things," says Amie Stepanovich, Director of the Domestic Surveillance Project EPIC.

The concern is that without strict regulation consumer's rights to privacy could be invaded.

The six test sites will continue through at least February 2017. But Congress has directed the FAA to open the skies for commercial drones by next year.

Later this year the FAA plans to propose rules for the use of smaller unmanned aircraft systems, but the plan is already behind schedule.

(NBC News' Danielle Leigh and KRIS-TV's Lee Sausley contributed to this report)

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