The tech industry, including Nevada’s up-and-coming drone industry, has long been plagued with waiting for regulatory policies to catch up.
But a recent shift in resources at the Federal Aviation Administration bodes well for the state.
In late March, the FAA issued a nationwide blanket certificate of authorization for drones to fly up to 400 feet. Anybody who intends to fly a drone for business must apply for a certificate and be approved.
“This is another milestone in our effort to change the traditional speed of government,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a statement. “Expanding the authorized airspace for these operations means government and industry can carry out unmanned aircraft missions more quickly and with less red tape.”
“Now the explosive growth of the industry is coming in the 333 exemption line,” 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.
The 333 exemption from the FAA will allow drones to be used for strictly commercial purposes. Currently, all of Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems’ drone operations must be centered around publicly oriented research and development missions.
The ability to offer commercial entities a space to test, and potentially develop, their products means more opportunity for job creation and economic development down the line.
“(Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems) acts as a clearinghouse. Business opportunities come in, and then we get them out to the industry. It makes us more resilient, more adaptable, more robust if we have a 333 exemption capability to offer,” Walach said. “The more opportunities we can generate as a medium to economically develop along the UAS industry here in Nevada, the better it is and the quicker we’re going to grow the industry.”
At the same time, the FAA is working to finalize a new regulation, known as the Part 107 rule, which will largely negate commercial operators’ need for 333 exemptions.
But, even with an accelerated regulatory process, things still take time.
“Seeing is believing,” Walach said, referring to the rollout of the 107 rule. FAA officials slated the 107 rule to roll out in the early half of 2016.
An FAA spokesman said the rule will come out “in a few weeks.”
‘AHEAD OF THE CURVE’
As the FAA continues to present new opportunities for expanded airspace, Walach said the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems is working “to stay ahead of the curve” and file paperwork early.
Same goes for a massive undertaking by the state for an air corridor, which will allow drones to fly in, out and between six airports throughout the state.
“Eventually, that is going to connect Southern Nevada to Northern Nevada and the branches east and west, with pulling in all the different types of industries (surrounding those airport),” Walach said.
Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems has certificate of authorizations and authorization from the airport authorities at Silver Springs, Reno Stead, Hawthorne and Walach is waiting for approval on two airports in Nye county, Tonopah and Beatty.
“Imagine all the different types of industries out to about 15 miles from each airport location,” he said.
Airports tend to be surrounded by industries ripe for unmanned systems intervention, he said, such as agriculture, electric power, railroads, transportation and construction.
“Surveying and mapping is going to be huge,” said Mark Barker, the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems’ business development director.
There is already hefty research and development going into unmanned agricultural mapping worldwide and at Las Vegas-based Desert Research Institute, the nonprofit research campus of the Nevada System of Higher Education. DRI is a partner of the Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems, a nonprofit group sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
DRI’s Tim Minor and Lynn Fenstermaker are working to develop drones that are equipped with different types of cameras and optical sensors that will be able to detect drought stress and would allow irrigation can be more finely tuned to the needs of crops. The sensors will also be able to detect early signs of disease outbreak, which could help pesticides be used more effectively and reduce the amount of pesticides needed.
This type of application could technically already be used, as long as the drone remained in its operator’s line of site and within FAA-allowed distances from the airports. But for longer-range operations, requiring an operator to fly a drone beyond his or her line of sight — for surveying power lines, or search-and-rescue applications — there are a still a few things to be sorted out, including additional paperwork.
“We are laying the groundwork for beyond visual line of sight (operations) but we have to wait for the FAA,” Walach said. “Our COAs right now give us the ability to fly anywhere from a couple of miles outside the airport’s location to about 15 miles out … what a beyond-visual-line-of-sight-air-corridor will do is it will connect Reno to Silver Springs to Hawthorne to Tonopah and Beatty to Las Vegas.”
Walach and his Nevada Institute of Autonomous Systems team are working to submit paperwork to get FAA approval to fly drones from one point to another all across the state.
PUTTING A FLIGHT PATH ON PAPER
“We actually have to put on paper a flight path from a point in Reno to Silver Springs on an application” after getting “buy in from the community, from the city, from the county, to air traffic controls” with the safety mitigation plan built in, he adds, “and then FAA takes a look at all the terrain between point A and point B, they look at our safety mitigation and they contact each of the location’s air traffic control facilities in the region.”
And that takes time — even if it’s just six months, by the time the air corridor comes to fruition, it will likely be an outdated objective.
“There’s never going to be a degree of finality,” said Tom Wilczek, the defense aerospace industry representative at the governor’s economic development office.
“This industry is moving so fast that as soon as you see a goal that’s put forth by the industry and you work toward that objective, six months later it’s already expanded or morphed into something else.”
Said Walach: “The real big development is yet to be seen. If we’re successful in doing all this, you will see the number of these small and large companies who want to reposition to Nevada increase, and wanting to create jobs for Nevadan. That’s going to be the real development.”