Churchill County becomes player in drone development | NevadaAppeal.com

Churchill County becomes player in drone development

Steve Ranson
sranson@lahontanvalleynews.com

Nevada's application to become a major drone testing state was one of six selected Monday by the Federal Administration Agency.

According to Gov. Brian Sandoval's office, the most likely economic forecast shows that there could be thousands of jobs for UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) direct employees with an average wage of approximately $62,000; an estimated $2.5 billion in economic impact in present dollars; and an estimated $125 million in annual state and local tax revenue.

The next step for the chosen states is to create a report due within 20 days of Monday's announcement that outlines intended activities based on Nevada's unique offerings compared to the five other sites. The other states include Alaska, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

While Nevada's looks toward the future with drone research and development and how to share the nation's air space with manned aircraft, the Fallon area has been at the center of testing for decades.

"The UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle or drones) have been flying here (Naval Air Station Fallon) for 20 years," said Steve Endacott, the city of Fallon's emergency management director and owner of Flight Test Concierges LLC.

Because of the work performed by Endacott and others associated with the local program and development, he said "a lot of competent people know how to get things done."

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"Being selected as one of six sites for UAV development in the country is a historic moment for Nevada," Sandoval said in a written statement. "With the climate and air space of Nevada, we are uniquely equipped to help expand the development of UAVs. We have also partnered with private industry and academia to establish the curriculum necessary to create the UAS civilian workforce of the future in Nevada. Our state has been preparing for this selection and we are ready to enter this new era of aviation history. I thank Sen. (Harry) Reid, D-Nev., for his tireless work on this issue and the opportunity to work together on this momentous day for our state."

FAA Director Michael Huerte said in a telephonic media conference from Washington, D.C. that Nevada was selected because of its geography, climate and current infrastructure with its major military installations, NAS Fallon and Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.

"Nevada's project objectives concentrate on UAS standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements," Huerte said. "The applicant's research will also include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of UAS into the civil environment and how these aircraft will be integrated with NextGen. Nevada's selection contributes to geographic and climatic diversity."

Huerte said testing at the Nevada sites would include certification, research and working with air traffic controllers.

Furthermore, Nevada was one of six states selected that involved 25 proposals form 24 states..

"In selecting the six test site operators, the FAA considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk," Huerte said. "In totality, these six test applications achieve cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its UAS research needs."

When the state submitted its application earlier in the year, Endacott said the statewide test concept involved four launch and reconnaissance sites: Boulder City; the Department of the Energy's Desert Rock area north of Creech Air Fore Base in Clark County; Fallon to include NAS Fallon and the city's municipal airport; and Stead, a former U.S. Air Force base north of Reno which is home to the Nevada Army National Guard's Aviation Support Facility and other aviation enterprises.

Endacott, who has worked on various drone projects for two decades, said the state contacted him to help put together responses and information for the proposal's application. According to Endacott, the responses had to be very specific as to who — by name, credentials, flight hours, UAV involvement and testing — will be involved, how and where the testing will occur.

According to Sandoval, Nevada's application included the state as the direct applicant, and a 28-member team including the Nevada System of Higher Education, the Nevada National Guard, Bowhead Systems, Navigator Development and Drone America.

Team members, who represented a cross-section of public and private partners, industry and academic leaders, within the northern and southern regions of the state, identified three test ranges and four test sites in the state's application.

Steve Hill, director of the governor's Office of Economic Development, said the process is still early, but he said both NAS Fallon and Stead each provide unique opportunities.

"The airspace and relative location of that airspace is attractive," Hill said, noting that the open airspace is one of Nevada's biggest assets. Stead is not as close to the military airspace and provides an opportunity for international testing. East of Fallon is wide open airspace that is attractive for testing because of privacy and safety."

Hill said another advantage for Nevada, and in particular Fallon, is the number of servicemen and women who retire in the state.

"The military side can't be downplayed," Hill explained. "One of the things we have seen are veterans retiring and staying in Nevada. They're keeping their expertise in the military here."

As for Fallon, Endacott said Churchill County has a "wide sandbox to use UAVs." He added the government has test different types of drones over its ranges, including Bravo 17 east of Fallon. Endacott said as early as 1997, predators were flying with the jets taking off from the NAS Fallon runway.

"NAS Fallon has had predators from Creech in Fallon's airspace," Endacott said. "We have also used them as an emergency tool."

Area residents and local government officials used drones as a training tool during the Vigilant Guard exercise, a week-long drill that tested civilian and military responses to a major earthquake in Nevada. During the exercise, the predator went from a training tool to help officials in a real-world situation.

A canal breach in June 2008 occurred west of Fallon on the V Canal, spilling thousands of gallons of water in pasture lands. The Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, in working with the military, surveyed the entire canal system from the Lahontan Dam to west of Fallon, checking for additional breeches. Midway during the exercise, Endacott said two Navy jets collided near Middlegate (47 miles east of Fallon), the operator redirected the drone toward the reported crash site to find the two aircraft.

"Vigilant Guard is the poster child where the nation wants to be," Endacott said.

As to the involvement from NAS Fallon and the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, Endacott aid ongoing discussions with previous and current commanders will delineate roles form both the military and civilian sectors. For example, Endacott said Bravo 16 range south of Powerline Road has been used only 10 percent of the time by the Navy, and the area could be used for some testing.

"Their (Navy) job is national defense, and Fallon is the only place the Navy can do specific missions," Endacott pointed out. "The UAV mission can't interfere with the Navy's mission. You would expect that be the case, and the state went out of it way to respect that."

Additional work now awaits both the state and local teams. Endacott said the challenges will be to integrate Nevada's technical businesses into this effort, but some businesses in the Silver Stated are already doing the work.

"This is wonderful news for Nevada that creates a huge opportunity for our economy," said Reid. "Nevada has long been a leader in the UAS Industry, and no state makes a better candidate than ours. With this application approval, Nevada will continue to lead in new and innovative technologies of the 21st century, along with creating a large and profitable industry."

In 2012, Reid led passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, establishing the Federal Aviation Administration program to begin testing for the integration of UAVs into the National Airspace System. Awarding Nevada the FAA test sites will have far reaching implications on the economy of Nevada. The range of jobs created includes, but is not limited to teachers, machinists, aircraft mechanics, software developers, electrical engineers and human resource professionals.