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Land of Drones

Land of Drones

By Kristen Knott, ATCA

If you thought Nevada was only known for Vegas, think again. The FAA designated the state as one of seven UAS test sites around the United States. It’s home to the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS), a non-profit corporation overseeing the state’s growth in the UAS industry.  Director Chris Walach took a break from NASA’s upcoming Technology Capability Level (TCL) 3 preparations to sit down with ATCA’s President and CEO Peter F. Dumont.  When Walach took the helm of NIAS and as director of the Nevada UAS Test Site in September 2015, he hit the ground running. Nevada is unique in that the entire state is a test site for drones.  It has six primary UAS test ranges, but according to Walach, almost anywhere in the state can be used for UAS testing.  That’s a huge benefit of choosing a state of almost entirely desert terrain (with approximately three-quarters of its population residing in one county) as a UAS test site.  Is that why Nevada was chosen as a UAS test site, asked Dumont?  “Absolutely – geography and weather,” said Walach. “We’re approaching 1,500 missions here and there hasn’t been one mission day where I had to cancel.”  The FAA’s designation has made Nevada a one-stop-shop for all things UAS. With only eight staff members, NIAS and the Nevada UAS Test Site are a small but mighty organization. On top of that, its Reno test range is only three hours from California’s Silicon Valley – another huge draw.  “We’re very connected to the state of Nevada – the governor [Brian Sandoval] is our biggest champion,” said Walach, whose organization was created and is sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).  We are very network and operationally centric – we’re connected to over 100 small and large multinational corporations.”  In 2013, the FAA designated test sites – other locations include Alaska, North Dakota, New York, Virginia, Texas, and New Mexico – around the US as a research and development effort to support UAS integration.  It’s a huge step towards developing the country’s UTM system, in partnership with NASA.  All the sites are currently busy preparing for NASA’s TCL 3 this spring, which will test cooperative and non-cooperative UAS over moderately populated areas.  The Nevada UAS Test Site is spending every day getting their crew ready through data collection, software integration, and meeting with partners at their Reno UAS Test Range, which will be Nevada’s primary location for TCL 3.  “We’re helping grow the national UAS industry,” said Walach.  “The state of Nevada is building their own USS [UAS service supplier] for TCL 3 and this USS will have an incredible drone detection capability for the UAS industry in addition to managing drone airspace.  The state of Nevada will now have a capability to integrate controls and systems into our UTM, ATC, and ground-based sense and avoid radar – we get all that situational awareness in one location.”  It’s the test site’s “direct connection” and partnerships with the FAA (through its research transition team) and NASA and even the US military that have helped make everything possible.  That includes record-setting accomplishments like successfully delivering a package via drone to a residential customer in Reno, Nevada, with the State of Nevada and Flirtey UAS.  Additional successes include flying the first cloud-seeding mission using a Drone America UAS, leading the FAA’s fourth Focus Area Pathfinder Drone Detection demonstration in November 2016 at the Denver International Airport, setting the longest distance UAS package delivery last summer in Texas at almost 100 miles using cellular communications, and flying the longest multi-faceted NASA UTM flight to date last summer.  In addition, NIAS teamed up with Microsoft’s UAS research group to test Artificial Intelligence (AI) flying almost two dozen Nevada UAS Test Site Certificate of Authorization (COA) flights in August 2017.  According to Walach, out of that test came multiple algorithm adjustments that will help develop the technology to advance the UTM architecture and the AI industry.  “UTM will be the umbrella – AI will be the center of gravity,” said Walach.  “There’s a lot of technology integration into the autonomous systems.  We’re happy to be a part of that history making.”  So, inquired Dumont, besides TCL 3, what’s next for NIAS and the Nevada UAS Test Site?  Well, said Walach, they recently applied to the FAA and US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) new UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP).  It’s a cross-agency initiative to partner state, local, and tribal governments with private sector entities to speed up safe UAS integration.  “The FAA and DOT will see [our application] is unlike any other plan,” said Walach.  “I’m looking forward to receiving an award this coming April.”  Dumont and Walach then looked to the future of UAS and UTM.  Where does Walach see it a year from now?  “While you may see more developments in the UK, I think the US will be the global leader, especially through the rollout of the IPP,” said Walach.  “Advanced technology and innovation is the core of what the IPP is about, but we need a process, a system, and a more operational connection between industry and local, state, and the federal government.  IPP sets the US apart, and Nevada is intending to lead at the tip of the spear for the DOT/FAA UAS IPP.”

Original article found at:  ATCA (Air Traffic Control Association).  Land of Drones.  ATCA Bulletin, 2, 2018.  URL: http://lesterfiles.com/pubs/ATCA/2018/Issue2-2018/page_5.html