Vacant land helps push for drone market

Nevada’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration marks the end of the beginning of a long, risky process to be named one of six test sites for commercial unmanned aerial vehicles.

The state filed earlier this month and the FAA is expected to make a decision by the end of the year. What’s at stake could be billions of dollars in new business and new jobs as UAVs – commonly known as drones – move into widespread commercial applications.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that the commercial drone market will grow to $13.6 billion and create 70,000 new jobs within its first three years and reach $83 billion by 2025. The states chosen as test sites would get the biggest piece of the pie.

“What’s required now is we make ourselves ready to receive designation,” says Steve Hill, executive director, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in Las Vegas. “For example, we need to secure certificates of authority for flight corridors, secure radio frequencies, develop policies and procedures for safety and privacy.”

To that end, Gov. Brian Sandoval requested from the Nevada Legislature $5 million to prepare — $1 million to be made available immediately and $4 million if and when the state receives a nod from the FAA.

There’s no guarantee Nevada will win designation. Competition is tough: there are a total of 50 applicants, including 37 states and other large entities such as universities.

Those involved in the process are reluctant to assess Nevada’s chances, but the state has a lot going for it. For one, there’s the geography — miles of unfettered air space over vacant land. Then there’s the homegrown expertise, both in military installations and a thriving defense contractor industry.

Creech Air Force Base in Clark County is home to both the MQ-1 Predator drone and the UAV Battlelab where military UAVs are developed and tested. Nevada has chosen three sites in the state to be used for testing — Boulder City in Clark County, Desert Rock in Nye County and Stead Airport north of Reno — and will add a fourth, the Naval Air Station in Fallon, if it receives designation.

And among the 28 participants in the state application is the country’s biggest defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, specifically its Advanced Development Program, famously known as Skunk Works.

“Having some of the major players in the industry backing and approving of our efforts strongly matters,” says Hill.

Another participant is Drone America, the Reno-based maker of Ariel 22 and Phoebus 16 drones designed for emergency and disaster relief work.

“We call it a Swiss army knife,” says Mike Richards, founder and president, because it can be used in a wide range of applications, from detecting hot spots for fire suppression to water search and rescues to maintenance on wind turbines. The company is currently working on contracts overseas, one with a commercial fishing operation which will use it to map waters and another client tracking wild game poachers.

Right now, commercial UAVs manufacturers such as Drone America have to test their equipment outside the United States, mostly in Australia, Mexico or Japan, where commercial drones are already allowed.

Drone America is hoping to test its drones in Mineral County, where it has received approval from the county to apply for a commercial COA from the FAA. The county, home to Walker Lake and Hawthorn Army Depot, is the first in the state to do so.

Shelley Hartmann, executive director for Mineral County Economic Development Authority, says the county is also working with a Texas maker of drones to locate a ground school for pilots in the county.

A flight school is another piece in the puzzle to help the state prepare for possible test site designation.

“Training pilots is one of the most challenging things,” says Drone America’s Richards. “It’s a combination of instrument-rated pilot and with communications knowledge. It’s unique combination and takes significant periods of training.”


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