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    Texas's Drone Fight Is Heating Up

    Written by

    Grace Wyler


    Image: Eric Cheng/Flickr

    The US government took a major step toward opening up domestic skies to drone flights this week with the Federal Aviation Administration’s selection of six test sites charged with figuring out how to integrate unmanned aerial systems into domestic airspace.

    The milestone decision—which came after more than a year of missed deadlines—is a long-awaited windfall for the domestic drone industry, as well as for Texas, Alaska, North Dakota, Nevada, Virginia, and New York, which were all selected to host test sites.

    But while politicians tout the expected boon in tax revenue and job creation, communities in the test site regions are only beginning to grasp the implications of experimental UAS testing in their airspace. And in Texas at least, local officials are not thrilled at the prospect of becoming the new Silicon Valley of drones.

    Just hours after the FAA’s announcement Monday, commissioners in West Texas’ Brewster County passed a resolution plainly stating that unmanned aerial systems are not welcome in their skies, citing a lack of public input in the state’s drone plans. It is the third such resolution passed by local Texas officials since November, underscoring a growing anti-drone sentiment that has taken hold around the state, particularly in rural areas like Big Bend, a sparsely populated region located along the Mexican border. 

    In Alpine, Brewster County’s biggest (and only) city, council members recently voted unanimously to ban drone test flights from operating out of the municipal airport, responding to angry petitions from local residents. And just before Christmas, officials in neighboring Presidio County followed suit with a preemptive resolution demanding that any drone tests take local aviation priorities into account before operating in the region.

    The local resistance presents a significant roadblock for Texas’s new UAS testing program, a statewide initiative that was selected by the FAA to to develop safety requirements and protocols for commercial drone operations. The plan, spearheaded by Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, includes 11 test regions that cover about 6,100 square miles across the state, about half of which are located in the Big Bend region. Initially, the public seemed supportive of the proposal, but in recent weeks a surprisingly fierce grassroots campaign against the test sites has gathered steam, driven by residents who fear experimental drone flights will clog local airspace and disrupt the quiet isolation of Big Bend’s open skies.

    “The proponents are prophesying huge positive economic gains, and maybe some of those could be possible someday,” Presidio County airports manager Chase Snodgrass told Motherboard. “But nobody seems to be publishing—and maybe [they’re] not considering—the estimated number of lives that may be lost, jobs lost, dollars lost, and the less quantifiable but vitally important freedoms that may be placed in jeopardy.”

    “In my estimation, this is a much larger issue that goes beyond states with test sites,” Snodgrass said. “The potential impact affects a much larger segment of our society than just general aviation.”

    Concerns about UAS are also practical in rural Texas, where regional airports serve as a major lifeline connecting isolated residents to the rest of the world. In Presidio County, for example, commissioners are concerned that the UAS test site will interrupt growing tourism market in Marfa, the isolated county seat that has become an unlikely getaway for the art world. More pertinently, local officials fear that drone tests will interrupt emergency air services in the Big Bend region, including flooding and wildfire assistance and ambulance flights.

    “Using this airspace for experimental flight test purposes clearly adds risk to emergency air operations,” said Presidio County judge Paul Hunt, pointing to a photo of a recent ambulance flight, in which a level-1 trauma patient was rescued by helicopter, then taken to the county airport near the Mexican border and transported to El Paso by an air ambulance. “Now, imagine doing this while dodging active experimental drone operations in the same airspace,” Hunt said.

    Presidio County judge Paul Hunt is concerned that drone testing could interfere with important air traffic, like the air ambulance above. Image: courtesy Hunt 

    Of course, the local concerns in Big Bend are the same issues that the six drone testing programs are designed to address. “There is considerable merit in raising the safety issue regarding UAS integration with general aviation,” said Ronald George, Texas A&M’s senior research development officer. “But again, that is the whole point of the test-site program—to develop technological and regulatory solutions that will permit that integration without undue risk to people on the ground and in the air.”

    “Flying is risky, manned or unmanned,” George added. “The question is whether it’s an acceptable risk. We would argue that it is, but clearly, there is a vocal element that would respond with a resounding no.”

    The rising anti-drone sentiment in Big Bend serves as a warning sign for the FAA, which already faces major legal and logistical hurdles in its attempt to integrate UAS into domestic airspace. Although the agency is not expected to announce commercial drone guidelines until 2015, privacy advocates and civil liberties groups are already pushing for tight regulations on drone use.

    So far, eight states have passed laws to restrict drone use by law enforcement, and in September, Texas became the the first state in the country to limit civilian drones. Coupled with municipal drone moratoriums—like Deer Trail, Colorado’s proposed drone-hunting licenses—these anti-drone measures have created a regulatory patchwork that is likely to jumble even further as local governments grapple with the coming drone boom.

    So far, little effort has been made to inform or include local residents and elected officials in the UAS test site process. While FAA spokesman Les Dorr declined to comment on the specifics of the Texas UAS opposition, he said that the selected test sites are responsible for getting locals on board with their drone plans, and were required to detail their outreach plans in their applications.

    But those applications were closely guarded by the FAA during the administration’s secretive vetting process, and many communities are only discovering that they will soon play host to the government’s first commercial drone experiment. Given the lack of information about what the test sites will actually entail, it’s perhaps not surprising that local officials are taking it upon themselves to protect their airspace.

    In a sign of the growing disconnect between public drone sentiment and the UAS industry, supporters of Texas’ test site have been completely taken aback by local resistance to their proposal. “Resistance in Alpine came as a surprise to us,” said George. The Texas Monthly reported in November that George and his colleagues were berated by Alpine City Council members after telling residents at a town hall meeting that they should “turn on the lights” rather than give in to “unconquered fear”—a mandate that, unsurprisingly, the people of Alpine found condescending.

    While the vote was a setback for Texas A&M’s UAS program, George maintains that other options are still available to operate drone launch and recovery in the Big Bend region. But he concedes that the university needs to do a better job of communicating with local residents and officials. “It is another indication that community outreach is essential if we’re going to operate a test range in that region,” he said, adding wryly, “it’s likely that our team members will spend a lot of time on the road.”