LAS CRUCES >> A single white trailer sits near runway 4-22 at the Las Cruces airport, the antenna on top chatting with the 21.5-foot-long Aerostar A drone parked on the tarmac outside.
This is where New Mexico State University's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center, once the lone such federally approved center in the nation, conducts most flight tests and evaluates procedures for unmanned aircraft as drones increasingly become part of everyday life.
Though drones are most often associated with military strikes on suspected terrorists abroad, scientists and CEOs are turning to unmanned aircraft to expand their research and businesses. Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos said he hopes to use small drones to deliver packages. Some photographers use drones to capture weddings. A tourist recently crashed his camera-equipped drone into Yellowstone National Park's iconic Grand Prismatic Spring, and other parks have reported problems with drones buzzing loudly overhead or crashing into scenic landmarks as tourists try to capture unique photos.
The private use of unmanned aircraft outdoors violates the FAA's current regulations, which restrict most flights to law enforcement and researchers. But as the devices become increasingly popular and cheaper, the federal agency has recognized it is in dire need of new rules.
"The technology is moving so quick that the FAA as a regulator and, really, the public cannot keep up with the speed," NMSU Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Test Center Deputy Director Dennis "Zak" Zaklan said. "... It's such a big field. The important thing is to understand that drones are not a negative entity. Really, the enhancements they can bring to all aspects of society are tremendous and unlimited."
The FAA has regulations for manned aircraft, from rules on tires to brakes to airspace, but federal officials are struggling to create guidelines for drones, which can be as small as a fingernail or as large as a Boeing 737, Zaklan said.
"The UAS manufacturers really had no legal place to go and test their aircraft," Zaklan said.
Though they may be seen as a cheap toy or fancy camera, flying a drone comes with risks as well, especially if pilots are untrained. Drones have crashed into crowds and buildings, injuring spectators.
So a few years back, FAA officials decided they needed to establish a testing site, and NMSU's UAS Flight Test Center was born.
How do we do this?
Zaklan started at the Flight Test Center in 2003, setting up an operations team in 2004. Initially, the group did mostly demonstrations, said Zaklan, a retired Navy master chief and cryptologist brought in for his intelligence background and experience managing projects on ships, aircraft and land.
FAA officials chose southern New Mexico as the test site for the region's limited air traffic, good weather and low population density, Zaklan said. As he recalled someone saying: "It's not at the end of the world, but you can see it from there."
The crew of about seven people, mostly with military and aviation experience, began running test flights and collecting data for the FAA to use in developing standards and procedures for unmanned aircraft.
"We'd sit down and say, 'OK, how do we do this safely? How do we do that with manned aircraft and how do we do that with unmanned aircraft?'" Zaklan said.
Drone manufacturers also approach the Flight Test Center, which will test and assess the companies' unmanned aircraft and flight protocol, sending that data on to the FAA as well.
The center also contracts with researchers and Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, Zaklan said. NMSU flies the aircraft and collects data on the flight and how the systems work together, while researchers collect the data they need. After the FAA contract ends this month, the center will increasingly rely on these other contracts to sustain itself.
The Flight Test Center crew also run their own test flights, testing unmanned aircraft and the attached sensors to develop procedures on how to incorporate drones into national airspace with manned aircraft, Zaklan said.
The crew have conducted about one flight a week since 2005. The Flight Test Center usually has seven to 10 drones in its care, including aircraft companies loan the center.
Some of the procedures NMSU developed have already been adopted and put in place. The Department of Homeland Security is using some of NMSU's procedures out of its Corpus Christi location, Zaklan said, and FAA officials adopted NMSU practices for chase planes, the planes that follow behind a drone to monitor its flight.
Meanwhile, the FAA has opened five test sites across the country this year, in Nevada, Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and New York. A sixth center will open in Virginia.
Zaklan said he expects drones to be increasingly widespread in the coming years, helping farmers determine how and where to spray pesticides and monitoring mines or volcanoes for scientists. Sensors hooked up to the drones could detect changes beyond the ability of the human eye, Zaklan said.
"Anything from mining, plants, search, basically anything that's dull, dirty or dangerous, it's better to use an unmanned aircraft than aircraft, because that way you're not putting a life in danger while you do the research that you're trying to do," he said.
Up in the air
The Aerostar A was $500,000 back when the Flight Test Center purchased it in 2005. The camera it carries was $500,000, too, Zaklan said. The crew spent three weeks in Israel to train on the devices.
Monday's flight is what Zaklan calls a "currency flight — checking out systems and making sure its good."
Before the launch, external pilot Joe Millette runs his fingers over each of the Aerostar's bolts, making sure they're secure. He will control the aircraft during takeoff and landing. Inside the trailer, internal pilot Tim Lower and payload operator Clifford Tyree check their computer systems, testing the aircraft's wing flaps and camera. Lower will control the aircraft in flight.
A crew member hops onto the all-terrain vehicle pulling the Aerostar and slowly guides it down the runway. At the other end, two men stretch a rope across the runway, held down by two weights. When the drone lands, a wire hook on the bottom of the craft will catch the rope, slowing the aircraft down.
Millette stands at the ready on the runway's edge as the drone's engine buzzes. A pick-up truck is parked nearby, makeshift shelter Millette can dive behind if he suddenly loses control of the aircraft.
With the sun rising behind the clouds left over from weekend rains, the drone's engines whir as it lifts off into the morning light.