Brigadier Gen. William Burks: Great breakthrough in drone use ahead

SPARKS — Want to know the path of development of the drones industry?

It’s probably a good idea to watch how unmanned aerial systems developed in military applications during the past 50 years, says Brigadier Gen. William Burks, the adjutant general of Nevada and the senior uniformed official of the Nevada National Guard.

The only difference: Commercial development of unmanned vehicles is likely to come far more quickly.

“When you look at the history of the unmanned aerial vehicle, the development is not linear. It’s exponential,” Burks told attendees of a manufacturers conference in Reno Thursday.

The annual Manufacturing in Nevada Conference, which drew about 100 participants, was expanded this year to include a full day of discussion about unmanned aerial systems and their potential impact on Nevada.

The state is one of six that won federal designation as a test site for unmanned vehicles, and state economic-development officials have high hopes the industry might create high-tech jobs in Nevada.

Driving today’s rapid growth of unmanned aviation technology, Burks said, are advancements in artificial intelligence as well as continued progress in the creation of the composite materials that are used in drone construction.

The first military uses of unmanned aerial systems focused on reconnaissance — cameras attached to kites in the Spanish-American War were among the first — and the commercial development of drones is following the same path.

Burks noted many of the commercial uses currently envisioned for drones involve the collection of information.

Some drones might carry sensors to collect geological, chemical or biological data. Others will deliver close-to-the-action broadcasts of sports events. And some will carry the cameras of paparazzi into spaces that currently are private.

“We have the ability to shoot over a very high fence, and there is no more privacy,” Burks said. “This is the one that gets everyone up in arms.”

But just like military drones grew from reconnaissance uses into roles that included the delivery of weapons, commercial drones will grow from collection of information into logistics uses, Burks said.

Amazon and other e-commerce companies are looking for ways to use unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver packages.

It might not be long, Burks said, before full-sized commercial cargo aircraft are flying through remote control. Already, passenger aircraft rely on automatic flight control during landings and other flight operations.

Are full-sized drones carrying passengers a possibility?

“Who in this room wants to be the first passenger on the first flight across the Pacific Ocean?” asked Burks. “The only thing that’s holding us back is the need to have procedures in place. We’ve already got the technology.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for development of the regulations that will ensure drones will be operated safely.

“They have a big, huge task in front of them,” Burks said.

The job is all the more challenging because technological innovation and business creativity are quickly broadening the possibilities for unmanned aviation systems. In fact, Burks said, the great breakthrough in drone use is likely to be in some area that’s currently not even imagined.

“There are a lot of smart people out there looking at it,” he said.

Two Carson City-based organizations, Northern Nevada Development Authority and the Nevada Manufacturers Association, were among sponsors of the annual manufacturing conference. Other sponsors include Nevada Industry Excellence, the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada and JA Nugget, which hosted the event.


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