“I hope we haven’t been unpleasant,” Alpine resident Lesley Hopper apologized to Texas A&M senior research development officer Ron George toward the end of last week’s heated town hall meeting in this small, Far West Texas town. At stake was the question of whether the Alpine City Council would approve A&M’s request to use the desert town’s municipal airport to launch and recover domestic drones when the Federal Aviation Administration opens airspace to civilian-operated unmanned aircraft in the near future. While A&M initially found local support for the project, sentiments shifted over recent months, resulting in a meeting packed with Brewster County residents clamoring for a chance to voice their anti-drone sentiments.
The FAA is in the process of choosing six states to serve as testing grounds as they wrestle with how to safely integrate drones into U.S. airspace; Texas hopes to become one of them. Supporters of civilian drones claim they aid in research and promote technological innovation. And then, of course, there’s the fact that domestic drones—or unmanned aircraft, as supporters prefer to call them—are already big business, and are poised to become even more so. With the FAA planning to open domestic airspace to commercial drones in 2015, the civilian drone market may soon dwarf military sales—which totaled more than $3 billion in 2011, as John Hogan reported in a March 2013 article for National Geographic.
The proposal that A&M’s Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence (LSUAS) submitted to the FAA includes 11 test regions spread throughout Texas, covering about 6,100 square miles. About half of that—3,000 square miles or so—would be in the Big Bend region. This part of Texas has “wonderful airspace” for drone testing, George said in the meeting, in part because it is so uninhabited. But people who moved out to Alpine looking for quiet and isolation didn’t particularly take to the idea of unmanned aircraft intruding on their wide-open spaces. “Mr. George, you are an outsider here,” one Brewster County resident said during the meeting. “You just referred to the area south of town as being in the boonies. This is not a desolate area—I just wanted to set you straight on that.” (To his credit, George had never actually uttered the word “boonies.”)
Alpine’s public hearing on Tuesday, November 19 at 6pm was the last in a series of gatherings both formal and informal held to discuss whether the town would rent space at its municipal airport to LSUAS. At first, residents seemed amenable to Lone Star’s plans; in June, the town’s airport advisory board gave unanimous approval to moving forward with a lease agreement. But as word of the agreement spread, grassroots opposition grew. A petition circulated by local minister Oscar Cobos garnered more than 300 signatures, as some residents urged the City Council to institute a preemptive ban on all drone traffic at the airport. The anti-drone sentiment in Alpine echoes concerns being voiced across the state; in September, Texas became the first state in the nation to put heavy restrictions on civilian use of unmanned aircraft. (Other states have focused on limiting law enforcement’s use of the technology.)
Last Tuesday, around a hundred Alpine residents packed the town’s Civic Center. (The group was too large to fit in the council’s usual meeting room next door.) The City Council members, led by Alpine Mayor Avinash Rangra, sat at the front of a room decorated with photographs of horses and extravagant desert sunsets; an incongruously large disco ball hung from the ceiling, with exposed ducting. During his calm, bureaucratic presentation, George, a tall man with a silver goatee, invoked ideals of progress, courage, and rationality. He assured Alpine residents that safety was LSUAS’s number one priority, and urged Alpine to become a part of “this complex national purpose.” But Alpine residents seemed miffed by George’s exhortation that they “turn on the lights” rather than giving in to “unconquered fear,” and his ten-minute presentation was met with stony silence.
Residents lining up to speak at Alpine City Council Meeting. (Alice Quinlan)
City council members had the first shot at replying to George: “I frankly find that condescending and patronizing,” said council member Mike Davidson, setting the tone for a parade of Brewster County residents, who approached the podium to register their opposition to bringing drones to Alpine. Objections were varied: Bernie Zaleski complained that the plan was “only going to benefit the military industrial complex,” while others voiced concerns about privacy, pollution, safety, and liability. Some residents worried that drone traffic would scare off the airport’s other clients, which include the Border Patrol, nearby ranchers, and local pilot enthusiasts. “I’ve been a flight instructor since 1965,” said Ima Jean Chamberlain. “I’ve met all kinds of things up in the sky, but they all had pilots—I don’t need some thing buzzing around me that I can’t see til the last minute.”
At times, debate got heated: “You’re interrogating me as if I’m some kind of criminal,” George told a particularly peeved town member at one point; he had the air of a man controlling his breath very carefully. On the whole, however, the debate was as polite as it was emotional, with many Alpine residents thanking George for his presentation—before telling him they wanted nothing to do with his proposal. After two hours of discussion and debate, the council voted unanimously to reject LSUAS’s proposal. The room erupted in cheers.
While the vote may have been a victory for grassroots anti-drone activism, the Alpine City Council’s decision doesn’t mean that residents won’t be seeing unmanned aircraft flying over their homes. The U.S. government already uses drones in its border surveillance programs in the area. Furthermore, as George noted after the meeting, even though the council rejected the plan, LSUAS still intends to use the region’s airspace if it gets the FAA contract—it just won’t use the Alpine airport as its base. “Just go on Google Maps and follow the Rio Grande and look at all the airstrips,” George said after the meeting. “We’re not going to have trouble finding somewhere else.”