Fallon carves out a role for itself in UAV-testing program
The City of Fallon is working to find its niche as it prepares to become one of four Nevada test sites for commercial unmanned aerial vehicles.
The city’s municipal airport, along with airports at Stead, Desert Rock and Boulder City, was anointed in December when the Federal Aviation Administration selected Nevada as one of six states to collect data for the FAA and serve as a test bed for manufacturers of UAV equipment.
Fallon officials are meeting this week with Tom Wilczek, industry specialist for aerospace and defense with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, to get an update on the statewide project, particularly the FAA’s needs. But part of GOED’s role will be to field inquiries from companies interested in testing systems here and help them determine which location best meets their needs.
“What we want to do is have a cafeteria or menu of different services and locations and offer that to the different types of companies,” says Wilczek. “Fallon offers a place that would give a particular client company the ability to test in undisturbed testing environment, away from an urban area.”
Fallon officials agree, and say the town has other unique attributes.
“One of the key features we have is Rattlesnake Hill, a nicely elevated little mountain that overlooks the airport,” says Jim Souba, city engineer and airport manager. “It’s a great place to observe since these UAVs have to be operated on a line-of-sight basis.”
The city has undeveloped land around the airport and elsewhere that it would be willing to help UAV companies develop, says Bob Shriver, economic and business development consultant with the city.
And Fallon offers acres of farmland. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that commercial UAV work will create nearly 104,000 jobs and have an economic impact of about $83 billion in the next 10 years, and 80 percent of that will be in agriculture applications.
“Ag is the low-hanging fruit,” says Gretchen West, executive vice president with the Washington, D.C.-based industry association. “And at the end of the day, the same exact equipment can be used for a variety of different types of applications.”
The primary use is imagery. A small UAV with cameras and sensors attached can find an infested portion in hundreds of acres of a crop, for example, saving a farmer both time and money pinpointing and curing the disease. Or the same device can be used to discover a geothermal hot spot or mineral deposit in an area otherwise too dangerous or expensive to explore.
Fallon has signed an agreement with the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, the Las Vegas-based non-profit which helped Nevada apply to be a test site and is assisting the local entities with the process of certification, training and collecting data.
Fallon’s contract allows for the testing of certain UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds, which is the type of system typically used for this kind of imaging.
Most of the work is behind the scenes at this point and participants are reluctant to talk while it’s being hashed out. But Western Nevada College, which has a three-building campus in Fallon and about 375 students enrolled a semester, has been approached to take both an “academic and non-academic,” part in Fallon’s UAV test site, says Robert Wynegar, vice president for academic and student affairs at WNC.
And Steve Endacott, owner of Fallon-based Flight Test Concierges LLC, which develops flight plans for U.S. Department of Defense users, says he is in talks to do the same thing for the commercial companies testing UAVs, but can’t discuss details yet.
“This is a new animal,” says Endacott. “It’s pretty out of the box stuff.”
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