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NMSU breaks ground for UAV hangar at Las Cruces airport

New Mexico State University's unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) soon will have a new home at the Las Cruces International Airport.

Philip Copeland, left, and Dennis "Zak" Zaklan of NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory make adjustments to PSL's Aerostar unmanned aerial vehicle following a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for a new hangar to house the university's UAVs. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

University officials and community leaders broke ground today (Thursday, April 12) for a hangar to house unmanned aircraft for the Technical Analysis and Applications Center (TAAC), which conducts UAV research, development, testing and evaluation.

The facility is expected to be completed in August. At 100 feet by 200 feet, it will be the largest hangar at the airport, capable of housing the world's biggest UAV, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk.

"This project demonstrates a strong commitment by NMSU to aerospace technology programs in New Mexico," said Stephen Hottman, associate dean for research and development at NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL).

NMSU is the only non-federal entity with a Certificate of Authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate unmanned aircraft in the National Airspace System. TAAC regularly conducts UAV flight operations from the Las Cruces airport. The activities currently are based in a smaller hangar near the airport terminal building.

A major focus of TAAC's work, in collaboration with White Sands Missile Range and the 46th Test Group at Holloman Air Force Base, is the development of technologies and standards that will allow unmanned aircraft to fly routinely with manned aircraft, performing tasks ranging from border surveillance to monitoring of forest fires or other disaster sites.

"We believe there is tremendous potential for civilian and commercial applications for UAVs because of their ability to perform certain tasks less expensively than manned airplanes, and without risk to a pilot," Hottman said.

White Sands Missile Range Director Thomas Berard predicted that cargo aircraft will be UAVs in the future.

"This is groundbreaking in more ways than one," Berard said at the airport ceremony. "I see the partnership that we have had with White Sands and NMSU and PSL over the last 60 years just getting stronger over the next few years."

Col. Dave Harris, commander of Holloman's 46th Test Group, said PSL's work is important to overcoming not only the technological challenges to incorporating UAVs into civilian air traffic, but also the psychological hurdles.

"I applaud you for this effort to incorporate unmanned vehicles into the National Airspace System," Harris said. "This hangar that will be constructed here is forward-thinking, looking to larger aircraft, a bigger, more capable fleet, and a future of great research and development in the field of UAVs."

The hangar site is on the west side of the airport, just south of runway 8/26. The city of Las Cruces extended utilities to this previously undeveloped part of the airport to accommodate the new hangar and other potential development.

"We are excited about having PSL at the airport," said Airport Manager Lisa Murphy. "The city spent over $800,000 to provide utilities and access - water, gas, electricity and an airport road and taxiway that leads straight to the hangar. Not only does it make the site usable for PSL, but it has opened up many acres of land on the west side for associated and support businesses to come in."

"We're really getting the resources to have successes out here," Las Cruces Mayor William Mattiace said at the ground breaking event. "The West Mesa is growing, the West Mesa is moving forward."