Betting on a future of flying

Progress in drone technology has made them smaller, cheaper, and easily accessible.

What’s lagging behind are FAA guidelines to enable their use.

“The complex regulatory process seems to be holding back the floodgates for the industry in the United States,” said Mark Walker, dean and director of UNR’s College of Cooperative Extension, adding, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

Drone accessibility means untrained users are flying drones — and crashing them in potentially dangerous situations, said Walker, one of the session speakers at the Nevada Economic Development Conference.

Last year, a young man in New York City famously launched a drone and quickly lost control of it amid the skyscrapers. It crashed on a sidewalk, nearly hitting a pedestrian who popped out the SD card with the video that included a close up view of the drone’s pilot, ensuring his apprehension.

Look up “drone crashes” on YouTube and there are plenty of examples of drone accidents, Walker said.

Other drone crashes have caused injury. And mishandled drones are a threat to manned aircraft.

Drones have unshielded propellers. With their mass and velocity, they represent a real hazard, Walker said.

In the right hands, drones are valuable tools. They provide high resolution photographs and videos that are hard to get otherwise.

They’ve been used to identify hot spots during wildland fires to better direct firefighting efforts. In the aftermath of major fires, they monitor wildland recovery, areas where invasive weeds are taking over, and soil erosion trends.

Drones can help monitor changes in habitat to help sage grouse preservation efforts.

Newmont Mining Corporation is currently using drones in its reclamation efforts.

News organizations are using drones to take videos of disaster sites.

“There are all kinds of potential applications,” Walker said. “Our imaginations haven’t scratched the surface.”

Whether they’ll ever be practical for pizza delivery remains to be seen. Walker noted a promotional video with a drone carrying a pizza in for delivery.

“The guy receiving the pizza looks nervous,” he said. As he should, considering the four unshielded propellers coming his way.

As organizations and individuals experiment with drones, the FAA is lagging behind in regulations.

Meanwhile, Canada and Australia are moving ahead at a rapid pace.

U.S. drone interest groups say we are losing millions of dollars a day, Walker said.

Preliminary guidelines borrow extensively from the Academy of Model Aeronautics rules for model aircraft enthusiasts. However, translating guidelines used by hobbyists into enforceable regulations for public safety is challenging.

In February, the FAA released a draft of special rules governing unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which can be found at:

The regulation gap is particularly significant for Nevada, one of six locations designated by the FAA as official drone test sites.

To help businesses and individuals navigate the changing drone regulatory environment and certification requirements, the state set up the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems. For more information, go to

Session: Are Drones In Your Future?

Mark Walker, dean and director, College of Cooperative Extension


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