LAS CRUCES, N.M. (KRQE) – A small gray plane revved its engine on Runway 22 at Las Cruces International Airport. Quickly, the propeller on its tail pushed it faster and faster past the white lines on the asphalt.
It soon broke ground and climbed skyward.
The only difference between this plane and the others that operate at the Las Cruces airport each day is the fact that on this plane, there is no pilot on board.
The pilot sits in a control room at the side of the runway, using computer programs and electronic screens to tell the plane where to go. This time, it heads 50 miles west, near Deming, and back.
The aircraft is what has become commonly known as a drone.
The Federal Aviation Administration officially calls the single-engine Aerostar an ‘unmanned aircraft,’ or UAV.
It’s part of a small fleet of UAVs from New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Flight Test Center, or FTC.
In 2007, NMSU became America’s first FAA-approved civilian UAS test center, and has been busy ever since helping advance the technology.
“There are so many different types of unmanned aircraft systems,” said Dennis Zaklan, Deputy Director of the FTC.
“You have multi-rotors. You have helicopters. You have fixed wing, and various sizes, shapes, speeds and abilities.”
The university’s FTC often uses its fleet of unmanned aircraft to test new kinds of electronics that are intended to make drone flight safe.
The primary industry goal is to eventually win the right to operate drones freely across all public skies. To do that, manufacturers and operators must first prove to the FAA that unmanned aircraft can be operated safely over populated areas and in the vicinity of other aircraft with people on board.
A key FAA requirement is that unmanned aircraft be able to both detect, and autonomously avoid, any other aircraft.
“Obviously an unmanned aircraft has nobody in it so nobody can ‘see’ out of the aircraft,” said Tim Lower, FTC Flight Operations Manager.
The NMSU team helps test new electronic systems designed to allow drones to sense and avoid other traffic.
“There’s been some strides made improving that,” he said.
But no system has yet been approved by the FAA.
“UAVs are here to stay, whether you call them unmanned aircraft systems or drones,” Lower added.
He feels they are especially helpful in particular missions.
“Some of the just monotonous flights where to have a manned aircraft would be in the air too long.”
NMSU is authorized by the FAA to fly its drones from public airports and in the vicinity of manned aircraft across most of southwestern New Mexico.
To do that safely at present, a manned chase plane is required to fly alongside the NMSU drone. The crew of the chase plane watches for other traffic and advises the remote control pilot back at the airport if a course change is required.
NMSU also hosts other unmanned aircraft from private companies.
Vanilla Aircraft, a UAS manufacturer from Falls Church, Virginia, tests its aircraft here. The spindly wide-winged plane looks like a glider with a propeller on the tail. It is designed to fly non-stop for 10 days.
Jobs might include weather research, ocean monitoring, surveillance or environmental studies.
Vanilla Aircraft is anxious for the development of the electronic “sense and avoid systems” that will allow them to fly more freely in the national airspace.
“Lightweight synthetic aperture radar is coming out. There’s vision systems. There is a whole host of technologies that are being tested right now,” said Jeremy Novara, Vanilla co-founder.
NMSU researchers believe the day is coming soon when drones do fly the skies freely and safely.
“I truly believe they’re going to be integral in society,” Zaklan said.