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Recent moves propel more drone flights at Nevada test site


LAS VEGAS — Eighteen months after its creation, Nevada's drone test site is finally gaining momentum.

After the Federal Aviation Administration broadened the state's authority earlier this year, the site conducted more flights in one week than it had in all months prior. It now has a NASA contract and a service agreement with the FAA for flight trials and research.

The test site and Nevada's developing drone industry was the primary focus of a recent FAA-sponsored meeting in the Clark County Commission Chambers, where officials from federal, state and local government attempted to shed light on projections for the future of the industry in the state.

Tom Wilczek, the point-person for Nevada's test site and an aerospace specialist in the Governor's Office of Economic Development, argued that Nevada is uniquely poised to reap economic benefits from drone businesses, especially as conversation shifts to larger unmanned aerial systems, or drones. With the Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, a hub for military drone operations, Wilczek touted the state's expertise and workforce.

"We believe that the (unmanned aerial systems) industry is our birthright," he said.

In 2014, Nevada became one of six federally designated drone test sites for research as the FAA develops final rules for drones.

Contrary to what its title suggests, a drone "test site" designation does not set parameters for where authorized flights can occur.

Although the FAA selected Nevada for several desirable testing sites — Fallon Municipal Airport, Nevada National Security Site/Desert Rock Airport, Reno-Stead Airport and Boulder City Municipal Airport — the FAA in May gave test site operators blanket permission to operate certain low-flying flights throughout U.S. airspace, as it has done with some commercial companies.

While the test site has helped facilitate flights in regulated airspace in its initial 18 months, the project was slow to start. For one, the test site designation did not come with federal funding. Moreover, restrictions limited the scope of the site's operations. In recent months, though, the FAA has eased some of those restrictions, allowing the test site to authorize more flights.

The permission allowed Nevada to authorize eight flights in one week.

"We are continuing to work with the FAA to come up with unique ways to push the envelope," Wilczek said.

But Wilczek also said the FAA sites have been preemptive, testing smaller drones rather than the larger systems that Nevada envisioned testing when it applied for a permit. He said that this problem will likely be remedied after the FAA issues its final rule for regulating small drones in 2016 and shifts more of its resources back toward larger systems.

For its part, the FAA, which sent two representatives to the meeting, has made progress in recent months to make small drone flights easier, giving the test sites more authority and giving businesses a process for conducting limited commercial flights.

Speakers at the meeting also highlighted local efforts to integrate drones.

Richard Brenner, the hazmat coordinator for the Clark County Fire Department, said his agency is developing a strategy to use drones to enhance its activities, such as dealing with hazardous materials, mass gatherings and large fires. In a presentation, the CEO of Aerodrome announced a public-private partnership to build a drone airport in Boulder City.

The Nevada test site is set to expire in February 2017. But with the site in the early phases of tackling questions about larger drone integration, something the FAA's rule next year is not expected to address, Wilczek is hopeful Congress will extend that date. "It's been an interesting, exciting and sometimes frustrating 18 months," he said.

Information from: Las Vegas Sun, http://www.lasvegassun.com

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