CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – At Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, a helicopter drone hovers menacingly over a robot vehicle. The vehicle tries to evade the drone, turning right and left – surging forward and backward. Like an angry wasp, the drone swoops back and forth, staying directly in front of the robot – exactly one meter away, one meter off the ground.
And it does it all without a human at the controls. In fact, human hands can’t replicate what the drone did with such precision.
It’s all part of a series of complex experiments to determine whether drones can be safely integrated into already-crowded U.S. airspace, and what they might best be used for.
“I believe they’re going to be a big part of our future,” said university President Flavius Killebrew. “Maybe not in the way you see on some of the ads, but in ways that we haven’t even conceived of yet.”
The “ads” Killebrew refers to are “blue-sky” campaigns by Amazon, DHL and Domino’s pizza that envision a world where drones will deliver everything from DVDs to double-cheese stuffed crust. Complicated navigation in urban areas is years away, if even possible, Killebrew says. The more likely first application for drones, he says, will be in rural areas, far from buildings and people.
“Like pipelines,” he told Fox News. “You can fly a pipeline with sensors to determine if there are leaks.”
Texas A&M Corpus Christi is one of six test sites picked by the FAA to work out the details on putting commercial drones in the skies by 2016. One of the other test sites -- in North Dakota – just received approval by the FAA to conduct experiments using drones to survey crops.
According to the FAA, there are some 7,000 commercial aircraft in the skies over the U.S. at any given moment. The challenge is how to integrate thousands of drones in the same space.
That’s a task Texas A&M researcher Luis Garcia is tackling in his laboratory. He programmed the drone that was chasing the robot vehicle.
“The technology is there,” Garcia told Fox News. He said it works well in the laboratory. His drone completes very complex tasks without any real-time input from humans. Outside in the real world is another matter, Garcia said. “The problem is – how are we going to coordinate all of these things in the air, you know? It’s not an easy task.”
Down the street, in the ICore computer lab, Ahmed Mahdy and his graduate students are exploring the complicated software programming that will steer drones here and there. One of his assistants, wearing a Google Glass, stands in front of a four-rotor drone. “Take off,” he says, and the drone faithfully jumps into the air. “Right”, “left,” he continues, and the drone follows his commands. He tilts his head one way and the other, and the drone responds. Then, in a remarkable maneuver, he says “flip” – and the drone somersaults. “Land”, he says, and the demonstration is over.
Mahdy is thrilled by the prospect of drones flying hither and yon, doing tasks too boring or too dangerous for humans.
“Hopefully, in our lifetime, every household will have a drone – a pet drone that can help you as an assistant. Go do chores for you,” he told Fox News.
Before that can happen, there are enormous hurdles to overcome. For starters, drones use civilian GPS as their primary guidance system. In the past, Fox News has revealed how other researchers have been able to commandeer GPS-based navigation systems and take ships off course. With thousands of drones flying around, could someone either jam or hack into their navigation system? Killebrew said that is a real possibility and a potential grave danger.
“If it was in a very populated area, obviously, if it’s a large drone and someone brings it down, it could cause a lot of damage or harm. And we certainly don’t want that to happen.”
Killebrew said changes may need to be made to the civilian GPS system to protect drones against attack. The military GPS is encrypted, but the system commercial drones will use isn’t.
“It’s important that we harden the system so they are safe to operate, and somebody can’t jam them or take them over,” Killebrew told Fox News.
Equally important is that U.S. laws keep up with the technology. Most drones are equipped with cameras and make a very effective tool for spying. Privacy issues are a big concern as the nation starts moving toward unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.
The FAA wants the first commercial drones to start flying by 2016. The Texas A&M researchers say that’s a realistic time frame, but that the skies won’t suddenly be buzzing with swarms of drones. Like the cell phone revolution, it will start small and then build over time.
The integration of drones into U.S. airspace will no doubt be driven by dollars. Killebrew estimates drones will be an $8 billion business in Texas alone -- $80 billion across the country. Researcher Luis Garcia agrees, pointing out that drones can do much of the same work as human-piloted aircraft for a fraction of the price.
He told Fox News, “If we manage to solve all of the issues concerning navigation – sense and avoid, control systems – then we’ll have a sky full of UAVs for sure.”
John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.