Monday, July 22, 2013 | 2 a.m.
UNLV is looking to the skies for its newest course of study: drones.
Sometime next spring, the university plans to launch a minor degree program in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Advocates say these autonomous flying machines, which look like small planes or helicopters, represent a burgeoning opportunity for Nevada's job market.
"We're trying to create a broad-based economy," said Doug van Aman, a regional director with Gov. Brian Sandoval's Office of Economic Development. "This is an exciting opportunity for Nevada students to participate in this new career field."
Nevada has long pioneered the use of military drones. After all, the Silver State is home to Creech Air Force Base, from which airmen piloted the Predator and Reaper drones in the Middle East.
While the U.S. military continues to advance its drone technology — most recently landing a UAV on a moving aircraft carrier for the first time ever — companies now are starting to look at ways drones can be used in the civilian world.
Commercial drones have the potential for many practical applications, from counting wildlife in the desert to shooting unique perspectives for movies to monitoring a nuclear disaster.
An explosion of commercial drones is expected to transform the aerospace industry, which will see $90 billion in revenue worldwide by 2025, according to some economists. And Nevada wants a piece of that pie.
"Nevada is pretty well situated for this (industry)," said Thomas Piechota, UNLV's interim vice president for research and an engineering professor. "It will bring new jobs here, and we want to be able to support that workforce."
State and UNLV officials say the conditions are perfect for Nevada to grow its commercial drone industry.
With many days of clear weather, Nevada's climate is ideal for year-round flying. Many areas of the state are sparsely populated, which makes testing drones more feasible. Plus, the state already houses several aerospace companies and Air Force bases from which to draw UAV expertise.
"We're definitely ahead of the curve in terms of access to subject-matter experts that helped develop this industry," said Tom Wilczek, an industry expert with Sandoval's economic development office. "We have an immeasurable amount of assets."
Drone advocates argue these conditions make Nevada an ideal candidate to partner with the federal government to test-fly drones.
In February 2012, Congress passed the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act, which tasked the FAA with developing regulations to open the national airspace to unmanned drones by 2015.
Currently, the FAA only allows piloted aircraft — whether by remote control or someone sitting in the cockpit — to fly in the national airspace. Unmanned drones, which are preprogrammed with flight plans, currently are banned from the national airspace.
Integrating these autonomous drones into the national airspace — which is already brimming with military, commercial, passenger and small aircraft — is a delicate matter for the safety-conscious FAA.
To avoid a head-on collision, human pilots are taught in flight school to break right when faced with an oncoming plane. How will unmanned drones react when facing a similar situation?
This issue — known as deconfliction in the industry — will require extensive testing of UAVs' "sense and avoid" capabilities. To allow drones into the crowded national airspace, they must be able to sense other aircraft and avoid collisions.
Another big issue facing drones is how they can communicate securely with human handlers on the ground and with other drones. In addition to concerns about collisions, the FAA is worried about drone hijackings and communication problems.
To test commercial drones and develop new regulations, the FAA is looking at opening six drone test sites across the country. Nevada is one of 37 states vying for FAA approval to test drones.
Nevada's application identified four places where the FAA and state officials could fly drones. They are the Desert Rock Airport near Mercury, an old airport near Fallon, Stead Airport near Reno and the old Boulder City Airport in Southern Nevada.
If chosen as one of the FAA’s drone test sites, Nevada would have a leg up in attracting drone-related businesses to the state. Major aerospace companies — such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — may expand their footprint in Nevada. The Silver State could attract entrepreneurs looking to set up their own companies in Nevada.
To prepare for this industry, UNLV is expanding its research into drones and developing a new course of study. UNR is launching its own minor degree program as well, starting this fall. (Even if Nevada doesn’t get the FAA designation, UNLV and UNR still plan to offer drone studies in preparation for wider adoption of drones when the airspace is opened in 2015.)
UNLV’s drone program will be part of the college of engineering and will cobble together existing coursework in aerodynamics, computer science and engineering. UNLV is looking at applying for a piece of the state’s $10 million “Knowledge Fund,” which has been earmarked to develop innovative businesses and technologies.
"We want to be proactive. We want to be ready (for this industry)," Piechota said. "This is something that students are going to need to know about for them to get jobs here and in other places. They need to be introduced to this.
UNLV won't be starting from scratch, however. The university has been studying drones for the past seven years, amassing a small fleet of unmanned planes and "quadcopters" — tiny helicopters with four propellers.
Over the past several years, Bill Culbreth, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has been specializing in unmanned drone research. He has been working with faculty from other science disciplines, such as computer science, to find answers to the myriad questions facing UAVs today.
While UNLV can help provide crucial research on this nascent technology, Culbreth is hopeful this new drone minor can spark students' interest in the science field. For years, state and university officials have mulled over ways to encourage more student participation in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.
"We need ways to excite these kids at the high school and college levels," Culbreth said. "I've found students are fascinated by (drones). They're just fun to fly."