SARITA (January 15, 2014) An unmanned aerial vehicle known as an RS-16 took off Wednesday from a gas-propelled catapult at the Kenedy Foundation Ranch in South Texas and flew to an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet over the Gulf Coast.
Researchers from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi flew the drone as part of test flights for the federal government.
After about 90 minutes in the air, the drone safely landed, skidding to a stop on its belly on a sandy dry lake bed about eight miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico and some 60 miles south of Corpus Christi.
University official David Bridges said the aircraft and its technology cost about $200,000.
The university has been researching drones for two years, investigating how to use them to map sea grass, detect oil spills and wildfire hotspots, monitor hurricanes and count cattle for ranchers.
Texas is among six states designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to develop test sites for drones.
The 11 Texas test sites are south of Fort Stockton, south of Fort Hood, outside College Station and in South Texas outside Beeville and south of Corpus Christi.
Drones have been mainly used by the military, but governments, businesses, farmers and others are making plans for use of the unmanned aircraft, and universities are starting or expanding drone programs.
The FAA does not allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede it may take longer.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta says safety is the first priority in moving drones into U.S. airspace.