State IDs drone-test prospects

Managers of Nevada’s commercial drone test site program have identified a few hundred companies that could be interested in testing here, reached out to a third of them so far and are now working closely with more than two dozen possible customers.

“About 300 companies have some potential, we’ve been in touch with a 100 of them and about 30 have a reasonable chance of filing here,” says Steve Hill, executive director, the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

Hill spoke after last week’s board meeting of the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, the organization put together by the state to oversee Nevada’s unmanned aerial systems test site program.

NIAS is one of several moving parts in the endeavor that includes GOED, regional development entities such as Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada and Northern Nevada Development Authority. Also involved are the state’s institutions of higher education including Desert Research Institute and the University of Nevada, Reno, and even smaller colleges such as Western Nevada College, which are working to figure out their role in fostering the new and potentially important industry here.

The state’s initial test flight will take place this summer at the Desert Rock Airport in Nye County after receiving the first Certificate of Authorization, or COA, from the Federal Aviation Administration.

COAs are required for each project, and more are in the approval pipeline, according to Chris Tunley, the general manager of NIAS. More flights are anticipated later this summer, he said.

One test is set to take place inside a local convention center.

The state’s convention centers open up a new venue for testing smaller UAVs here. UNR, says Hill, has previously experimented with similar vehicles inside its Lawlor Events Center.

NIAS also last week released for public comment its policy on privacy, the top one concern for the state’s citizens who worry a small hovering aircraft loaded with a camera could see inside homes or backyards.

The NIAS board put the finishing touches on its contract with Bowhead Systems Management LLC, a subsidiary of Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp., which is acting as the program management office for NIAS.

The company, which supplies the manpower for NIAS, says Hill, was instrumental in the state’s application to become an FAA test site and was the logical choice to help manage the project.

Hill says Nevada’s efforts are twofold. There is the test site work, taking place at Boulder City Municipal Airport and Desert Rock Airport, in southern Nevada, and at Fallon Municipal Airport and Stead Airport, in the north, to gather data for the FAA, which must eventually integrate commercial drones into the airspace. That is overseen by NIAS and Bowhead, which will file COAs and assist in those efforts with companies coming here only to test.

A parallel effort to jump start businesses and bring UAV-related companies here permanently is being undertaken by GOED and the state’s economic development authorities.

Also, as part of that effort, DRI, UNR and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, are working with UAV companies.

The trio was approved for $500,000 in state Knowledge Fund money to each conduct a single project with matching funds from an industry partner.

Lynn Fenstermaker, an associate research professor at DRI, says industry and higher ed has a symbiotic relationship. Public institutions have an easier path to get acquire COAs and businesses can help further research, such as atmospheric science and sensors, DRI’s focus.

So DRI and others are busy talking with companies to develop mutually beneficial arrangements.

“It’s like a huge ball with lots of strings sticking out, and rolling ever so slowly, to get these partnerships formed,” says Fenstermaker. “The UAS gold rush has taken off.”


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