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First Flight

By Darrell J. Pehr

Aerial Vehicle

An unmanned aerial vehicle operated by PSL sits on the runway at the Las Cruces International Airport.

First Flight

New Test Center opens airspace to UAS research

As it cleared the end of a catapult launching system mounted atop an SUV on July 31, a small, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) aircraft flew into history as the first flight at the New Mexico State University Physical Science Laboratory’s unique Flight Test Center. Launched at the Jornada Experimental Range, the BAT 3 aircraft flew a predetermined flight path, soaring about 400 feet above the ground to give Jornada researchers a more clear view, through digital photography, of the status of rangeland health.

Unmanned Aerial Systems Hangar

Cutting the ribbon at the Unmanned Aerial Systems hangar dedication in September at the Las Cruces International Airport is Steve Hottman, associate dean and deputy director at PSL. To his left are Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima and Jay Jordan, NMSU associate vice president for research programs.

The flight is significant, not only for its assistance to researchers on the ground, but also because it opens a new avenue for the testing of UAS systems with the help of PSL. In February, U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici announced an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that takes advantage of the unique airspace in southern New Mexico as well as NMSU’s expertise in UAS research. As a result, New Mexico State University will become a national hub of research and development work on unmanned aerial systems, and the first step has now been taken with the BAT 3 flight.

NMSU and the FAA signed the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to create the university’s UAS Flight Test Center for government and private research, development and testing of unmanned systems, including a designated airspace in southern New Mexico to safely carry out this work.

Aerostar Aircraft

Guests look over an Aerostar aircraft during a hangar dedication ribbon-cutting event at the Las Cruces International Airport.

“This agreement is the result of years of work, both on my part and on the part of those at the FAA and New Mexico State University,” Domenici said. “This is important research, and the information gained will be important as the need to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the airspace system increases.”

Steve Hottman, associate dean and deputy director at PSL, said while the Jornada Experimental Range was used for the first flight, future flights could cover a wide swath of southwestern New Mexico: the Flight Test Center includes about 15,000 square miles of airspace.

And the opportunities for testing at the center could lead to UAS missions for a wide variety of purposes, Hottman said. UAS aircraft can be used to monitor migrating whales and changes in the ice caps; law enforcement, both in urban settings and along the border by the Department of Homeland Security; monitoring forest fires; disaster assessment, such as in the aftermath of hurricanes; and even agricultural purposes, such as precision crop spraying. “UASs enable the utilization of technology and limited resources to the best advantage,” Hottman said.

As the center’s first “client,” the researchers at the Jornada Experimental Range were grateful for the opportunity to use a new, airborne tool to accomplish their work.

Aerostar Aircraft

Phil Copeland, left, strategic technical director at PSL, and Dennis Zaklan, PSL engineer, work on the Aerostar aircraft during a groundbreaking event at the Las Cruces airport.

“I am very pleased with the capabilities of the Physical Science Lab’s Flight Test Center,” said Al Rango, research hydrologist at the experimental range. “In order for the Jornada Experimental Range UAS group to fly in the National Air Space, we need the approvals that PSL facilitated. Our intention is to develop techniques that can be used to improve rangeland management in the Western United States. Such techniques will be developed at Jornada and hinge upon the integration of ground-based and UAS-based measurements of rangeland health.”

“I was really pleased with both the performance of our Jornada UAS team and the performance of the BAT 3 unmanned aircraft,” said Andrea Laliberte, rangeland remote sensing scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at the range. “The interaction with the mission commander and visual observer from PSL worked smoothly, especially since this was the first time we had operated together.”

Laliberte was the pilot-in-command during the flight on July 31.

Future flights at the Flight Test Center are expected to involve more sophisticated systems as the project moves into its role of providing a place for commercial and government testing of UAVs in a safe environment.

Data from such flights will be analyzed and sent to the FAA, where it will be used to help develop regulations for the future of this emerging technology.

NMSU’s UAS program has a new home at the Las Cruces International Airport.

The Physical Science Laboratory unveiled the long awaited NMSU/PSL UAS hangar during a ceremony in September. The new facility houses unmanned aircraft for the Technical Analysis and Applications Center, which conducts UAS research, development, testing and evaluation.


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