Captain Russell Peck, CEO of Strategic Aerospace International Ltd., holds a press conference to announce the opening of unmanned aerial vehicle training at MISTIC, Friday. (Mark Wilson Photo)
Operators for a new program that will train pilots to operate drones from the Roswell International Air Center discussed concerns about public surveillance and safety Friday.
Officials announced the creation of an Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or drone, pilot training center at MISTIC, a special 2,500-acre compound at the airport.
The new center is expected to begin training pilots on smaller drones possibly by May, said Capt. Russell Peck, chief executive officer of Strategic Aerospace International.
The program will begin training pilots on the smaller crafts, flying them during the daytime, inside the airport boundaries, Peck said.
“If you come out here, you might be able to hear them,” Peck said. “A safety pilot is looking at it the whole time, if it should get out of sight.”
The center’s primary goal is to provide pilots to fly three types of drones: the Sky Ranger, a small drone for industrial inspections and law enforcement surveillance; the SandShark, used for military and government agencies; and the Diamond DA42, which can fly long distances for many hours.
The Sky Ranger is limited to 400 feet flying height. In 4,500 landings, operators have not lost a craft, Peck said.
All drones expected to be flown in the initial program will be equipped with surveillance cameras. But, officials said they did not expect to record any video of homes or farmland in the area with the smaller aircraft.
“We don’t go over anybody’s houses,” Peck said.
Video can be recorded but operators don’t intend to do that, he said.
“We would probably record that but within the boundaries (of the airport),” Peck said.
The DA42 can fly for 10 hours and cover 1,000 miles. The craft is a fixed-wing flyer and meant for nautical operations. If there were an instance when these drones would fly over private property and record video, the company would ask permission of property owners, said MISTIC director Glenn Wells.
“There is absolutely no privacy issue with this,” Wells said. “There will not be any surveillance taken.”
The City of Roswell is one member of a coalition to organize the program. The others include Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, Roswell International Air Center, Chaves County and Strategic Aerospace.
The center’s operation building is the former U.S. Air Force flight operations facility that can accommodate up to 80 pilot trainees and staff.
One avenue that Strategic Aerospace is pursuing is training wounded warriors, or veterans who have sustained injuries, as pilots.
“We’re trying to do that our very best,” Peck said.
Another pursuit is to bring foreign students into the program and house them at the Roswell center, he said.
The market to train unmanned aircraft systems pilots is growing extensively. Opening a base in Roswell has allowed the coalition to partner with ENMU-R and possibly start a new university program.
“The demand for UAVs and UAV pilots is going to be strong,” Peck said.
The trained pilots can expect to make $90,000 a year, Peck said.
The drones are being used more often in agriculture, law enforcement, by utility companies and government agencies.
“We’ve been around Roswell for a while,” Peck said. “It’s an ideal spot for us. It’s a great area. The weather is good. It works for whatever we want to do. We’re happy to be part of it.”