Nevada developing global renown for drone research

Magic Sky displays a drone during the InterDrone Conference at the Rio on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017.

After the Federal Aviation Administration designated Nevada one of six unmanned aircraft (UAS) research sites in 2013, the state has been capitalizing on the rare opportunity and cultivating an international reputation in the drone industry.

“The (designation) … provides a superhighway to jobs and businesses to develop,” said Chris Walach, director of the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, speaking at the Nevada Economic Development Conference on Wednesday. “The question is what can we do together as a state to develop that superhighway?”

Nevada has been on the forefront on various drone breakthroughs.

“Package delivery, drone detection at critical infrastructure at airports, long-distance cargo delivery and cloud seeding are some of the many (breakthroughs),” Walach said.

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems is also working with the FAA to help develop regulations for the drone industry, Walach said.

The designation has also meant large contracts, such as a partnership with NASA to develop unmanned traffic management, he said. “Basically, it's the air traffic control structure … trying to figure out how they’re going to integrate manned and unmanned aviation.”

The designation of the six research sites throughout the country and the development of Part 107, which created new rules for non-hobbyist small (under 55 pounds) UAS operations, has spurred the industry. Commercial authorizations to use UASs rose from eight three years ago to 60,000 this year, according to Jonathan Daniels, consultant, educator and researcher for Henderson-based Praxis Aerospace.

“No other nation has had that growth and media access in commercial systems,” Daniels said. “A lot of that has come from the developments from the test sites.”

Rules and regulations of Part 107 include not flying higher than 400 feet; not flying at night, reaching a maximum speed of 100 mph; and flying with a minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from the control station.

Developing flight-time and education requirements is key to the future of the industry, said Art Eggers, applied technology professor at the College of Southern Nevada.

“We offer a two-year applied science degree in engineering technology,” Eggers said. “We are interested in potentially partnering with Nevada State to create a four-year degree. I can’t put everything into my two-year degree. If I can turn it into a three-plus-one (with Nevada State) ... I can add those advanced elements as the technology grows and build it into a four-year degree program.”

Creating more internships is also essential for the industry to grow its workforce in the state, Daniels said.

“I’ve had nine interns, seven from UNLV and two from CSN, I love them, they’re my favorite people to work with,” Daniels said. “I was heartbroken when our top intern got pulled by NASA … We couldn’t talk her out of it — it was NASA!”

Nevada has developed a global reputation for its drone industry, Daniels said. “Some of that is tied to military, but in the last five years some of that has shifted toward commercial as well,” he said.

With that reputation and several other advantages the state offers, Daniels said there is no shortage of tech companies wanting to come here and test out their latest advancement.

“We have some great natural resources and weather here,” he said. “We also have some fantastic infrastructure related to wireless and our airports.”