Drones: It’s about supplier ecosystem

Nevada’s economic developers are zeroing in on unmanned aerial vehicle component manufacturers and service providers as the biggest opportunity now that the state is a national test site for commercial drones.

The designation, announced by the Federal Aviation Administration last week, means the state will serve as one of only six sites in the United States where manufacturers of drones can test their products and where potential users can try them out for myriad applications such as fire-fighting, search and rescue or delivering retail products. The state will also be working with the FAA on, among other things, testing how to integrate commercial drones into NextGen, the FAA’s evolving air traffic control system.

“It means we can literally get in a truck and initiate some safe testing in a controlled environment,” says Mike Richards, founder and president of Drone America, the Reno-based maker of drones for emergency and disaster relief. “Having the FAA test site is a huge bonus to the industry here.”

The industry here is small, but everyone involved in the state’s application to become a test site says that should change.

The state estimates the designation will have a $2.5 billion economic impact and bring in up to 15,000 jobs paying an average wage of $62,000 a year.

“This is a real opportunity to add an industry that can be a pillar of our economy,” says Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

The foundation, say those charged with helping build it, will not be the manufacturers of drones themselves, which are mostly large, well-entrenched companies such as Lockheed Martin, but makers of parts for UAVs and service providers.

“The drone is a very small part of a much bigger ecosystem,” says Mike Kazmierski, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. “What matters about the drone is the technology hanging off of it.”

That technology — sensors and cameras, for example — are utilized beyond drones, says Kazmierski, on all kinds of unmanned vehicles of the future.

“Driverless ships, trains, cars. We’re not just talking about drones,” says Kazmierski. “This is an opportunity for economic vitality for the next 20 years.”

“I think that’s the big play here,” says Rob Hooper, executive director, Northern Nevada Development Authority.

Hooper says northern Nevada has a head start because the area’s manufacturing base already has many businesses working with the aerospace and defense industry connected to military UAVs so economic developers can build off that base to attract more.

Nevada Nanotech Systems Inc., for example, is working with University of Nevada, Reno, under an award from the U.S. Army, to equip small, four-rotor helicopter drones with its chemical sensor to detect chemical weapons such as sarin gas before sending troops into an area. The pair will be doing a proof of concept demonstration in a UNR lab for the next six months.

“Then we’ll go out and set up a test with the Army, maybe now at Nevada test site,” says Jesse Adams, vice president and chief technology officer at the Reno start-up. “We’re thrilled Nevada was selected.”

But drones are just one of a whole range of devices and vehicles that Nevada Nano’s sensors can be attached to, including cell phones.

Like Nevada Nano, SpecTIR LLC in Reno develops a product that can be attached to drones. Its hyperspectral, or heat-sensing, imaging systems are used to detect environmental contaminations or fire risks or the presence of sources of geothermal or oil and gas.

And Sierra Nevada Corp. makes navigation and guidance systems for both manned and unmanned vehicles and tests them using manned systems at Reno-Stead Airport, one of the four sites where drone testing will take place in Nevada. (The other three are in Fallon, Boulder City and Desert Rock.)

“SNC conducts flight testing all over the world for our customers, but it is more convenient and efficient to test closer to where the engineering development teams are based,” says Greg Cox, corporate vice president, Communication, Navigation, Surveillance/Air Traffic Management Business Area.

Reno-Stead Airport, which has 3,000 acres ready for industrial development and another 1,000 acres for aviation, hopes to become home to some of the new businesses.

“We’re ready to become a center of excellence,” says Tina Iftiger, vice president of economic development for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. “We’re hoping for companies that manufacture UAVs and do the data analytics. We’re hoping that helps shift to region to a knowledge-based economy.”


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