Pilots have been flying airplanes for more than 100 years, but now researchers at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi are working to perfect the next generation of aviation – unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that fly by themselves. The results will help transform the aviation industry, as well as the economy of the Coastal Bend Region. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi has been selected as one of six federal test sites for unmanned aircraft systems; and aviation technology firms are flocking to the city to tap into the economic boom expected to follow. The university’s Lone Star UAS Center, located at the Coastal Bend Business Innovation Center (CBBIC) on campus, provides the Federal Aviation Administration with data it needs to safely integrate UAS – also known as unmanned aircraft systems – into the nation's airspace. That's a huge responsibility, especially with everyone from delivery companies to law enforcement preparing to launch UAVs. The economic potential is just as big. Work at the command center places the region on the leading edge of the next generation of aviation technology. Once airspace is opened up to UAS, the economic impact is expected to be $6.5 billion for Texas over the next decade, according to a 2013 economic impact study published by the Association of Unmanned Vehicles International. The industry is projected to create up to 8,256 jobs across the state. “The longer term impact could be much more significant," says Bill Cone, director of the CBBIC. "Employment at the command center located here is expected to grow to 120 people, with an annual payroll in excess of $6.8 million." Selection as an FAA test center creates new opportunities for the region, says David Bridges, director of the UAS program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. “Unmanned aircraft systems are indeed the leading edge of development in aviation," Bridges says. "It is a business and a market that is set to explode. Because of the preparatory efforts of a number of people associated with the university and with Corpus Christi, the region is remarkably well positioned to capitalize on this explosion when it occurs." Potential for Military, Civilian Applications Researchers at the Lone Star UAS Center will explore a broad range of applications for unmanned aircraft systems, including precision agriculture, protection of coastal environments and precise mapping. The university is already taking steps to build a future workforce for the UAS industry by developing a course of study in the field for mechanical engineering students. Bridges sees potential synergies with the Corpus Christi Army Depot, which has experience upgrading the Shadow Tactical UAV for the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. The university is also exploring relationships with Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which operates the Predator UAV from the naval base. Adding the Shadow was a coup for the depot, which is the Army's only facility dedicated to helicopter repair, maintenance and overhaul for private industry. The depot recruited experts to train its workforce in the repair and maintenance of unmanned aircraft systems, with emphasis on keeping costs low and efficiencies high, says Sam Sinjlawi, CCAD’s Shadow lead. Building Momentum The region’s UAS momentum has led to several inquiries from aerospace companies interested in working with the Lone Star UAS Center, Cone says. Two have already signed on. Pennsylvania-based American Aerospace Advisors Inc., which builds unmanned aircraft systems, helped the university customize its first UAV and works with the center to provide mission control personnel during test flights. Balboa Map Company, which develops systems for precision agriculture, relocated from Lubbock to work with the center on using UAVs to reduce the cost and boost the efficiency of its services. Attracting companies like these will give the UAS industry the lift it needs to take off in the region, Cone points out. “This will provide excellent, high paying jobs, significant education and research opportunities, and help diversify this economy to keep the increases we are just now seeing in area personal incomes trending upward," Cone says. "This will also allow us to provide area investors with local investment opportunities as research is commercialized and offer opportunities for the best and brightest of our young people to live and work in the Coastal Bend." American Aerospace Advisors CEO David Yoel shares the enthusiasm for the aviation technology opportunities developing in the region. “We see a bright future in South Texas, especially in the development, manufacture and testing of long-endurance UAS mission systems for civilian applications," Yoel says. "The Coastal Bend brings an outstanding venue for our entrepreneurial enterprise." Read more about the Coastal Bend region's defense industry.