Monday, Feb. 22, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The 50-acre plot in Boulder City being billed as the “world’s first commercial droneport” resembles a summer X Games site more than a traditional landing field. There’s no runway, and much of the desert floor is uneven, with soil raised into compacted jumps for the motocross course that used to be there.
Three months after Henderson company Aerodrome, which teaches people how to fly unmanned aircraft, announced it would create the Eldorado Droneport, all that sits on the lot is a gated entrance, a portable office, a netted enclosure and a viewing platform originally built for BMX bike spectators.
But in the next year, the company, in partnership with the city, plans to create a runway, build facilities and, it hopes, receive a permanent airport designation from the Federal Aviation Administration.
The goal is to use the airport to train drone pilots. The slope of the ground, the area’s wind patterns and the land’s distance from McCarran International Airport make the site an ideal hub.
Analysts believe the drone industry is poised for growth. Aerodome hopes to benefit from the trend by providing training for operators and infrastructure for aerial systems as they get larger, travel farther and more often resemble fixed-wing planes.
“The day we have 6-ton cargo drones, they can land at our airport,” said Jonathan Daniels, president of Aerodrome.
Boulder City officials see the droneport as a potential economic driver. As more companies explore using drones, firms might want to lease space at the airport. Through an agreement with the city, the airport also will be open to the public, despite being developed by a private firm.
“This gives us an opportunity to be on the ground floor (of the industry),” said David Fraser, city manager of Boulder City.
As systems become more complex, pilots will need training, which will be the primary purpose of the airport. Daniels likens it to a teaching hospital. The airport will serve as a hub for companies looking to test and fly, but it will simultaneously provide a realistic environment for pilots to practice their skills and study for certification. Aerodrome already teaches several drone courses.
“It’s a phenomenal amount of space,” Daniels said.
Aerodrome has an indoor flight area in Henderson but needed an outdoor practice range. Options were limited because of FAA airspace restrictions.
“We encountered this issue of, where do we go to fly?” Daniels said.
With few exceptions, FAA regulations prevent unmanned flight above dense populations, such as in the Las Vegas Valley, or near airports. Fixed-winged drones, which don’t take off vertically like quadcopters, require open space and a runway.
The droneport could solve the problem. If the droneport is approved as an airport, Aerodome would be able to exempt certain flight operators from the rules within its airspace, allowing operators to take off and land in Boulder City.
In December, Aerodrome started the months-long process with the FAA to become an airport, a designation that applies to diverse areas such as seaplane landing areas and helipads.
Daniels says the company has no desire to build “McCarran South.” Rather, the droneport would resemble Henderson Executive Airport, with roughly the same amount of infrastructure, Daniels said. It would include a runway and a facility for flight operations and maintenance. The site already has a circular netted cage, about 60 feet in diameter, for flying drones in an enclosed environment.
Although the project will not be finished for at least a year, Aerodrome received permission to operate up to three days a week. The droneport frequently opens for recreational pilots and hosted a drone race this month.