Expect to see drones buzzing above you within the next few years in Corpus Christi.
The City Council on Tuesday approved a $4 million, five-year business incentive agreement between the Corpus Christi B Corporation and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. It intends to expand and support the modernization and infrastructural needs to the campus’ Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft System Center.
LSUASC is one of seven Federal Aviation Administration drone test sites in the United States, and the only one in Texas. The test site was established in 2013 as a research center at TAMUCC with support from the Corpus Christi Business and Job Development Corporation.
The center is a global partner for research, development, testing and evaluation of drone technologies across educational, public and commercial agency interests. It supports the aeronautical research needs of research institutions, private-sector service providers, nonprofit corporations and local, state and federal agencies.
These aren’t the kind of machines hobbyists can pick up in the toy section of a big box retail store.
The drones associated with the project are unmanned aerial systems designed for cutting-edge research and commercialization niche to build the area’s economic development core infrastructure.
Iain Vasey, president of the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development Corporation, told the council he hoped the agreement and its significance would be remembered decades from now.
“The city of Corpus Christi has put a lot of importance on downtown redevelopment, working to get the university a presence downtown as one of the major anchors, but also we have been building the drone technologies away to diversify our economy,” Vasey said.
Vasey said several large businesses wanted to be involved with LSUASC because of drone technology. He was unable to name them because of confidentiality agreements, but said approval of the agreement will take Corpus Christi to the next level of technology.
“In order to get ourselves on the map, we really need this testing center,” Vasey said. “That’s almost the anchor tenant. Almost as if you were building a shopping center; that’s the target store. Then you get the other pieces which are the little companies that come in next to it.”
University president and CEO Kelly Miller said innovative businesses want to do business in Texas and she is positive her institution is ready to lead them in Corpus Christi.
The project will result in a $20.4 million investment in the downtown area. TAMUCC acquired the old JCPenney building in downtown Corpus Christi for $2.3 million and will be investing $6.8 million in upgrades and repairs. In addition, $11.3 million will be invested to incorporate programmatic elements for drone technology and other university operations.
The business incentive of $4 million would constitute slightly less than 20% of the total project’s cost. The agreement will require the university expend the $7 million on this project, not including the contribution from the Type B Corporation and that at least $4 million will be expended on eligible infrastructure improvements and/or job training.
Miller said she has worked close with CCREDC to ensure they have all the pieces necessary, but are missing three to fulfill and strengthen LSUASC. Those include a Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight (BVLOS) study, a second mission control center and supporting centers with drone-related activities.
The purpose of the BVLOS study is to identify airspace that can be accessed by LSUASC for public or commercial use. As for the mission control center, Miller said one already exists, but is nearly a decade old.
“If you think about your own technology, if it’s eight years old it still works, but it’s not the most competitive,” Miller said.
The supporting centers will help bring businesses in general and support local businesses that want to integrate drone technology into what they do, Miller said.
“We want everyone in the state as well as in the nation, when they think of emergency management and drone technology, they think of Corpus Christi,” Miller said. “As the whole world, and particularly our country, (is) looking at Texas as a place to come for innovative business, there’s no reason why they can’t be looking at the coast and coming here to work with us.”
Greg Smith, Dist. 4 City Councilman, asked Miller about what the project timeline. She said architects have been selected and she wants to get started immediately.
“It’s a fast, aggressive timeline but we’re looking to have all the pieces in place within the next three years,” Miller said. “The first step would be that Beyond-Line-of-Sight study and we will simultaneously be working on mission control. So pieces of it will be in place within a year.”
Smith asked for Miller to talk about the building TAMUCC purchased in downtown Corpus Christi and what she plans on doing with it.
“We bought the old JCPenney building downtown; it’s an incredible facility,” Miller said. “Selfishly, a vibrant downtown just helps us attract new students and helps us keep our best and our brightest. As my role as president, it’s very important for me to see downtown become revitalized. As a citizen of Corpus Christi for 28 years, I’m also just really excited for what that will bring to the entire community.”
For more information about LSUASC, visit tamucc.edu/lone-star-uas.
John Oliva covers education and community news in South Texas. Consider supporting local journalism with a subscription to the Caller-Times.