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NMSU to open one-of-a-kind test center for unmanned aircraft

New Mexico State University will become a national hub of research and development work on unmanned aircraft systems, thanks to 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 unmanned aircraft system research.

New Mexico State University's Aerostar unmanned aerial vehicle is set for a flight at the Las Cruces International Airport. Thanks to an agreement between NMSU and the Federal Aviation Administration, NMSU will soon become a national hub of research and development work on unmanned aerial systems. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici announced the agreement Wednesday. NMSU and the FAA signed the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to create the university's Unmanned Aerial Systems (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.

"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."

NMSU President Michael Martin said the agreement opens the door for new opportunities.

"This represents another wonderful opportunity for NMSU to forge a new relationship which will enhance our research production and our service to the nation," Martin said. "Again, we thank Sen. Domenici for the confidence he has invested in us."

The center expects to provide research and development for unmanned aircraft use in areas such as the establishment of standard UAS regulations, in addition to providing relevant technology for homeland security, agriculture, defense and science operations. Operated by NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory (PSL), the center will be headquartered in Las Cruces and use existing airspace, infrastructure, and policies and procedures to carry out its work.

"New Mexico State University is the ideal institution to house the center," said Stephen B. Hottman, associate dean for research and development and deputy director at PSL. "NMSU has more than eight years of experience with UAS; has foundational standard operating procedures already in place and in use; has the ability to collect and process significant data; has a solid credible safety record; and has experienced UAS personnel. In addition, the location in southern New Mexico is ideal because of the sparse population in the area, the low density air traffic, and the favorable climate."

No standards currently exist for the routine deployment of UAS within the National Airspace System. Domenici expects the agreement will allow researchers to develop standards consistent with safe and useful operation of UAS that in the end will be mutually beneficial to NMSU and the FAA. Thanks to the agreement, the center now has access to a 12,000-square-mile coordinated airspace to conduct flights.

The agreement follows significant efforts on the part of Domenici to secure federal defense funding for the laboratory's UAS Operations Validation Program, as well as federal approval for NMSU/PSL as a research hub.

"The center is a result of long-standing support by the senator of the New Mexico State University UAS initiative," Hottman said.

In a 2006 letter to the FAA, Domenici noted the need for a UAS flight research center, as well as NMSU's strong qualifications for hosting such a program.

"Over the past several years, I've remained convinced that NMSU is a prime setting for this kind of innovative research. Its geographic location, proven research capabilities, and positive impact on New Mexico's economy are just a few of the reasons I expect the program to be well-served through the signing of this agreement," Domenici said.

Domenici is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, including subcommittees that fund the FAA, Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Over the years, he has pressed DHS to deploy UAS in southern New Mexico.