It may surprise you that drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, will soon be flying over Nevada. They’re not the pilotless machines the military uses to conduct surveillance and launch missile strikes in Afghanistan, but drones none the less.
Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, says he expects test flights to begin in May. He says the final hurdle before testing can begin is securing the airspace from the Federal Aviation Administration.
With 31,500 square miles of restricted airspace to work with, Nevada’s airspace is larger than the other entire five test sites selected by the FAA in December.
“We have a lot of airspace,” Hill says. “But, we also have access to that airspace 300 to 320 days a year. There is a lot of airspace in Alaska, but the environment doesn’t allow for testing 320 days a year.”
Another reason for Nevada’s selection is that it’s been home to unmanned military drone operations for two decades. Unmanned Predator aircraft operate from Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas.
“This industry was really created here in Nevada,” Hill says. “Probably some of the UFO sightings here 50 years ago were the original tests being done in this industry.”
Nevada was notified in December that it had been selected one of six states designated by the FAA to test drones. The FAA’s goal is to integrate drones into the U.S. commercial space by September 2015.
“We think (this) is a real opportunity for Nevada,” Hill says. “The designation we received gives us a leg up on being one of the centers for the industry, but it only gives us a leg up. We need to look at what is going to be the major issues five to 10 years out.”
Issues involving intellectual property, insurance and privacy will be significant over the next decade. Hill says designing an industry that address those concerns will create a sustainable advantage for Nevada.
“All of these aerial (vehicles) raise privacy concerns,” says Farber. “It is not so much the aircraft, but what the aircraft is equipped with. High resolution cameras live streaming videos and facial recognition. These are the things that are able to drill down and intrude into the privacy of someone who is in their backyard.”
She says a drone hovering at 5,000 feet watching what you’re doing ahs a lot of lawmakers concerned.
“It’s not occurring at this very moment, but it is what’s anticipated,” Farber says.
Currently, Nevada doesn’t regulate the use of commercial drones. Farber says only eight states restrict the use of drones, while on two of the eight deal with their commercial use.
“A state like Texas … has enacted legislation that restricts both the public and private use of (drones),” Farber says. “They carve out exemptions for civil use for just that purpose … surveying oil rigs and other types of machinery that is hard to get to or covers vast amounts of space.”
Within the next decade, the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, industry is expected to employ 15,000 people in Nevada. The creation of this new industry is estimated to have an economic impact of up to $2.5 billion while providing $125 million in tax revenue, according to GOED.
Richard Jost, director with Fennemore Craig Jones Vargas
Hillary Farber, associate professors at UMass School of Law
Steve Hill, director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development
Bruce Black, consultant with Gannet International