A flying multitool. That’s how J.B. Bernstein, CEO of AviSight, describes the product his drone company offers to casinos and agencies across the Las Vegas Valley.
Decorated with sports memorabilia, his office is tucked away in an unassuming business park off Charleston Boulevard. There are no guest chairs like you might find facing the desk of a prototypical all-American CEO, but the space is all-American.
There’s a Michael Jordan sculpture and a statuette of former NFL star Barry Sanders. And Bernstein doesn’t leave you standing. Instead of plain swivel chairs, he offers either a Yankees stadium seat or a bar-height director’s chair.
“My sports career gave me the ability to be an investor in some things,” he said.
Before he got into drones, Bernstein was a sports agent, and because he was a sports agent, he got into drones. So he decided to invest in AviSight, a Las Vegas-based startup that was founded by military veterans to help companies integrate drones into their business models.
He initially thought he could help introduce drones to sports coverage as a replacement for those ubiquitous overhead cameras suspended on wires. But his focus shifted to what he sees as more lucrative opportunities to tap an emerging industrial market.
DRONES ON THE STRIP (AND EVERYWHERE ELSE)
In addition to the obvious entertainment uses — covering live events — Bernstein is working to connect drones with law enforcement and private security teams on the Strip, utility companies and even facility managers. Entertainment on the Strip may be the obvious, high- profile application, but drones are capable of much more.
Drone development and testing sites in Nevada
The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, a nonprofit corporation created by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, has eight officially designated areas in Nevada for the testing and development of drones:
• Reno-Stead Airport, Reno
• Silver Springs Airport, Silver Springs
• Hawthorne Industrial Airport and the surrounding area, Hawthorne
• Mesquite, a test range 10 minutes north of the town
• Tonopah Airport, Tonopah
• Beatty Airport, Beatty
• Unmanned Vehicle Range (adjacent to Nevada State College), Henderson
• The Aerodrome, Boulder City
“Think of the drone as a Swiss army knife,” Bernstein said. “Then we have all these sensors we can pop on.”
In an adjacent building, past a signed Joe Montana picture, Bernstein has a Pulse Vapor 55. It’s a white, 15-pound helicopter drone with a
LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor, used to survey terrain. That’s one of the tools Bernstein can pull from his Swiss army knife.
Sensors — AviSight has infrared, multispectral and gamma sensors as well — allow the company to complete tasks such as inspecting power lines and monitoring crowds as they exit from an event at T-Mobile Arena.
“We’ve already started working with most of the hotels on the Strip (on) getting some baseline marketing images that we’ve been putting together,” Bernstein said.
Commercial drones have been legal for several years, but companies are increasingly seeing applications and opportunities to integrate them into their business models. Several Las Vegas companies are working toward that goal, from finding cracks in construction projects to improving how the real estate industry takes photos to show prospective buyers.
Drones can be used for search and rescue. They can be used to monitor gas leaks. They can be used for the kinds of dynamic marketing images AviSight has been shooting. They can even help predict when buildings might be damaged.
Often, the forces affecting buildings and other structures cause stress and strains not visible to the naked eye. In the near future, Bernstein said, drone-collected data will be fed into computer models, which will employ information about construction materials and methods to make more educated predictions about when a structure could fail.
DRONES IN NEVADA
With ample empty land and eight official sites for drone development and testing, officials see Nevada playing a role in drone development.
In December 2013, Nevada was one of six federally designated test sites for commercial drones, a distinction used to bolster the state’s profile in the industry. Last year, Chinese company Ehang said it plans to test its passenger drone in Nevada, and a Reno-headquartered startup conducted the first residential drone delivery of first aid. This month, The New York Times reported that Microsoft had been testing autonomous gliders in Hawthorne that use little power.
Some of the state’s large employers are supporting the industry’s expansion and use in Las Vegas. Bernstein rattles off a long list of AviSight’s corporate partners — NV Energy, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment among them. The company also has an exhaustive list of contracts with municipal agencies throughout the valley.
Bernstein said his company has helped Metro monitor events such as the Electric Daisy Carnival and the first day of school. It also has helped the Regional Transportation Commission conduct traffic analysis and survey sites for new roads.
“If you don’t own your backyard, you don’t own anything,” Bernstein said. “We’re the official drone of Metro Police. We’re the official drone of the city of Las Vegas. We’re the official drone of Clark County.”
AviSight became the first company this year to receive a broad waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate over the Strip. Other companies are allowed to operate in that rarefied airspace but must receive special permission before every flight.
Praxis Aerospace Concepts International is one of those companies. The Las Vegas-based firm helped set up a drone traffic-management system with AirMap and is developing drone software.
“Right now, there is someone flying, because I’m watching them on my screen,” Praxis CEO Jonathan Daniels said.
Like AviSight, Daniels said, Praxis has municipal, federal and corporate clients, including Fortune 500 companies. Both companies see an opportunity in bringing a new industry’s tools to old organizations. They both focus on education, teaching operators how to safely fly and manage a drone fleet.
AviSight, for instance, works with other companies to come up with five- or 10-year plans. The firm sets the groundwork, helps get certifications and train employees. “The drones allow you to (fly) closer to get better data. They reduce your costs massively,” Bernstein said. “That’s part of the proposition we are packaging. ... My gut is that of course they are going to bring them in-house.”
He isn’t worried, though, that this will cut into business. What makes AviSight different is not just its hardware but its software, Bernstein said. Drones collect streams of data that must be analyzed. The company has developed an artificial intelligence model and is using machine learning to automatically do analysis that a company can then act on, he said.
“Basically, aerial inspection has two sides, the services side and the software side,” Bernstein said. “The services side flies over the structure and collects data that gets fed back into the AI engine that looks for faults.”
Bernstein said in the not-too-distant future, the AI engine will not only recognize the problems but will relay the information to a dispatch system which will then send a crew out to fix the problem.
All this hasn’t left Bernstein with much time to think about replacing the suspended cameras at sporting events.
“It’s kind of become back-burner for us,” he said. “That’s kind of the irony of my situation.”
Rules to Fly
Under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small UAS Rule, you don’t need specific FAA permission to fly in uncontrolled airspace, provided you fly within the parameters of the rule. According to Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA’s Pacific Division, among other requirements, the rule stipulates that:
• The pilot must have a remote pilot license.
• The drone cannot be flown over crowds of people.
• The drone must be flown below 400 feet.
• The drone must remain within the pilot’s visual line of sight.
• The drone must be flown during the day.
• The drone must be flown in uncontrolled airspace.
Gregor noted that the Strip is within the highly controlled Class B airspace around McCarran International Airport. “We have given a few operators authorization to fly in locations adjacent to the Strip,” he said. “However, the authorizations are very restrictive to ensure drones don’t pose hazards to any airplanes or air tour helicopters, or to people on the ground.”