Will drones make Nevada’s economy soar?

The state is in the running to be a national drone test site

Ikhana the Predator drone waits for a mission at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Federal Aviation Administration is weeks away from announcing where it will test unmanned aerial systems – drones capable of flying in situations that are too dangerous or mundane for manned aircraft.

Nevada is on the short list of 25 applicants from 24 states. Six test sites will be chosen, the next step to opening the nation’s airspace to civilian drones.

How drones might be used for civilian life

Say “drones,” and most people think of military uses – the Army monitoring troop movement or the Air Force attacking enemies without endangering pilots.

But there are numerous civilian uses for drones, too.

In fact, some already have taken to the skies. The Federal Aviation Administration allows drone testing and some unmanned aircraft use as long as the drones have a chase-plane escort and don’t fly over populated areas.

Industry boosters say there will be more than 10,000 drones in the United States by 2015.

What will they do? A look at some existing and potential uses:

• Monitor storms. NASA scientists have flown drones near hurricanes to watch their movement and monitor their strength.

• Fight forest fires. It’s much safer for unmanned aircraft to watch the progression of a fire than firefighters.

• Patrol the streets. The most common projected use for small drones is police patrols. Privacy advocates worry drones could create a surveillance state, but proponents say they make patrolling easier, cheaper and more efficient.

• Farming. Drones could help farmers identify which crops need water, fertilizer or attention.

• Mineral prospecting. Precious metals emit unique light spectra, so mining companies are eager to search for new deposits using drones, which would be cheaper to operate than helicopters.

• Search and rescue. Drones with heat-sensing equipment can cover more ground for longer periods of time than ground search-and-rescue crews and conventional aircraft.

• Wildlife management. Drones could help conservationists better track and count wildlife.

• Mapping. Drones could improve mapping by capturing three-dimensional images from the sky.

• Remote delivery. Companies such as FedEx and UPS could save millions of dollars a year using drones to transport packages to remote locations.

• Pizza delivery. Domino’s Pizza already has developed a “DomiCopter” drone that can deliver pizzas. But the invention was largely a publicity stunt. The company acknowledged there are no plans to deliver pizza by drone.

• Pilotless commercial airplanes. The public might not accept it, but the technology exists to fly commercial planes without a pilot on board. Instead, he or she would control the airplane from the ground.

Nevada is a strong contender. The state is home to hundreds of square miles of airspace far from population centers and already houses a military command center for unmanned aerial vehicles used by Creech Air Force Base. Nevada has experienced drone pilots and support companies that work with unmanned aerial systems. And the state has a variety of terrain and weather that make flying conditions ideal more than 300 days a year.

Civilian drone technology is expected to be a multibillion-dollar industry by 2025. State officials also hope it will be a key to diversifying Nevada’s economy.

“We have more UAV pilots here than anyplace in the world,” said Tom Wilczek, Nevada’s aerospace and defense specialist. “They’ve all resided at Creech or flew at Creech. We’re practically the birthplace of the industry.”

Congress began the process of allowing drones in civilian airspace in 2012 when it approved the FAA Reauthorization Act, which ordered the FAA to develop regulations for testing and licensing commercial drones by 2015.

Forty-three states and seven private entities applied to the FAA to be test sites. Other finalists include California, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota, Minnesota and Missouri.

Since it’s a competition, no state has released details about their plans. But Wilczek said he is confident that Nevada has one of the nation’s best proposals and will be among the six sites selected.

Winning the bid would be a boon to Nevada’s economy.

“It won’t just be the FAA testing,” Wilczek said. “It’s the potential for organic growth. There’s testing, research and development independent of the FAA construct. Not only would there be a manufacturing platform here for civilian and humanitarian uses, but there also would be large numbers of suppliers. We’ve already got some.”

Drone industry suppliers already have set up shop in Nevada. They include:

Click Bond, a Carson City subsidiary of Physical Systems Inc., which manufactures and distributes fasteners used in the aviation industry.

Drone America, of Reno, one of the nation’s top providers of autonomous unmanned vehicles and high-tech services and equipment.

AeroTargets International, a Pennsylvania company that designs and manufactures small target drones and launching systems and recently opened a location in Las Vegas.

State officials hope to entice more companies to settle locally. They scheduled a workshop for 9 a.m. on Nov. 18 at the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Lifelong Learning Center, 8050 Paradise Road, Las Vegas. The $25 workshop also will be teleconferenced to 15 cities across the state.

What would a robust drone industry look like in Nevada? NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base offers a glimpse of what could be.

Edwards sits in Southern California’s Mojave Desert, nestled amid secure airspace at a facility that was an alternate landing site for space shuttle flights. With a diminished role in manned space flights, NASA has taken on new tasks, including developing uses for unmanned aircraft and conducting research with drones.

Dryden’s workhorse drones are commonly known as the Predator B and the Reaper but have been renamed for nonmilitary missions as well as the larger Global Hawk.

A Predator named Ikhana, a Choctaw word meaning intelligence, is 36 feet long with a 66-foot wingspan and can fly more than 24 hours without refueling.

The Global Hawk, is 44 feet long, has the same wingspan as a Boeing 737 and can fly 11,000 miles for 32 straight hours. Both were built from lightweight graphite composite material and have line-of-sight and satellite command-and-control communications links.

NASA has used Ikhana to help the Forest Service monitor fire lines and detect hotspots. Two Global Hawks have tracked storms for the National Weather Service.

Pilots at Dryden control the drones using joysticks or computer mice. Most UAVs fly on a preprogrammed path, but pilots can deviate from them, the same way they can turn autopilot systems on and off.

One of the big advantages to flying remotely is that pilots can be switched in seconds. Most fly eight- to 10-hour shifts. If a mission requires a longer flight, it’s not uncommon for multiple crews to be involved.

Tom Miller, the lead pilot for Dryden’s Global Hawk team, said it’s easy to fly with a keyboard and mouse. Nevertheless, even experienced pilots need five months of specialized training to fly a UAV.

Click to enlarge photo

A Global Hawk pilot explains how the control room for unmanned aerial systems at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base works. Pilots use a joystick or mouse to fly drones.

“It’s a much different experience,” Miller said. “You lose the use of some of your senses when you fly them. You can watch the icons on a computer screen, but you lose the sense of motion. Part of the flying experience is awareness, and you can’t see cloud buildups and you can’t smell things that you’d be aware of when you’re in an aircraft.”

Miller said unmanned aircraft are limited only by the bandwidth that connects them to the ground. In addition to uploading commands from the control center, drones typically gather large amounts of data, often in real time.

For example, unmanned vehicles can monitor forest fires and deliver immediate information to personnel on the ground who can use it to strategize an attack. Sometimes, data sets are stored, as in the case of gathering air samples and developing 3-D maps.

Emergency flight plans are pre-programmed into drones so they will seek a safe landing spot in the event of a break in communications.

Pilots also are trained to glide UAVs to land if there’s an engine failure. The Global Hawk can stay aloft and glide for 45 minutes after an outage.

While Ikhana and Global Hawk are the largest unmanned aircraft, NASA also has worked with smaller UAVs to address specific flight issues, such as collision avoidance.

For instance, a team produced a system capable of fitting in a smartphone that prevents aircraft from flying into mountains and high terrain. If a pilot becomes disoriented, it saves him or her and the plane by taking over the controls.

Click to enlarge photo

The Reaper drone, now known as a Global Hawk, is 44 feet long, has the same wingspan as a Boeing 737 and can fly 11,000 miles for 32 straight hours. NASA acquired the aircraft from the military in 2009.

Confusion from high G-forces has been attributed to 172 pilot deaths and 209 crashes. When the system detects an imminent collision, it turns on an autopilot system that steers the plane out of danger. The Air Force now uses the technology on F-16, F-22 and F-35 fighter jets.

To keep up with the technology, Nevada will need to continue to boost its educational system to grow talent to meet the demands of the industry.

Wilczek said school districts and universities already are preparing.

Next spring, UNLV and UNR will unveil minor degrees in UAVs. UNLV will offer the program through its College of Engineering and already has a fleet of four helicopter-like drones.

The Desert Research Institute also is developing UAV-based science programs, using drone technology for wildlife and biology missions.

And students at the Academy of Aviation at Rancho High School recently won a national robotics competition that tested their skills in both air- and ground-based technology. The magnet school offers programs in private pilot training and aerospace engineering.

So will Nevada become one of the FAA’s test sites?

Wilczek is optimistic.

“I’m biased because I really want this for our state,” he said. “But being objective and evaluating everything we have to offer, I’d be surprised if we weren’t selected.”

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