Nevada is slated to be a designated Federal Aviation Administration drone test site until 2020 under terms of a proposed deal authorizing the FAA through September 2017.
With less than 10 days before the current authorization to fund the FAA expires, Democrats and Republicans compromised on a short-term extension authorizing the FAA through 2017. Congress is expected to vote on the bill Thursday or Friday and legislation is expected to be on President Obama’s desk by next week.
Authorization for the Nevada Unmanned Aerial System Test Range and the other five test sites was set to expire next year. One of the deal’s provisions will extend the test range program for an additional three years, until 2020. Nevada is the only state authorized as a test site; the other test sites are state agencies, airports or universities.
The extension means Nevada’s emerging drone industry can continue to move full-speed ahead, several sources said.
“That really validates the value of all of the UAS test sites to grow and advance the industry,” said Chris Walach, director for the FAA-designated Nevada Unmanned Aviation Test Site and the director of technical operations for the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, which works with the governor’s economic development office and acts as a clearinghouse for drone-related business opportunities. “We have only just begun to help move the industry forward, and this is not a short-term process.”
He said the FAA on June 21 finalized a regulation, known as Part 107, for small drones that will make it easier for people to operate them for commercial use.
“Just with the Part 107 being approved … that’s good news for the industry, but the industry still has to have an outlet to do testing beyond what Part 107 allows. That’s where the test sites come in,” he said.
Without the extension, Tom Wilczek, the defense aerospace industry representative at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said some of the larger projects that the office and the test site are working on might not be able to come to fruition, including an unmanned system air corridor, which will allow drones to fly in, out and between six airports throughout the state.
“Three years is great because in some ways we’re just getting started,” Wilczek said. “You’ve seen some of the level of success that we’ve been able to realize in just this last year. It would have been a shame for Nevada, it would have been a shame for the industry, and it would have been a shame for, in some ways, just the general world of higher technology if we had not received the extension because then that would have removed a very valuable asset that’s really helping to grow the industry.”
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said that after all the time it took to make sure Nevada was one of the six chosen test sites, fighting for an extension of the test-range program was a high priority.
“We have a real commitment to it, and the thing is you just need a longer amount of time to get some of this stuff going,” said Titus, who serves on the House aviation subcommittee.
The bill also includes safety measures for the development of a low-altitude unmanned traffic management system, a pilot program for detecting airborne UAS at the nation’s airports and increased authority to prosecute incidents of reckless UAS use.