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May 24, 2019

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Drone tests to rise in Nevada skies under pilot FAA program

Sundance Media Group's Mobile Operations Center

Steve Marcus

The skies around Nevada’s largest cities are about to see more drone aircraft, after federal agencies picked the state for testing remote-controlled vehicles in urban airspace. Pictured is a Yuneec H520 drone, which was demonstrated during a preview of the Sundance Media Group’s Aerial Vehicle Operations Center (AVOC) at the Nevada Highway Patrol Southern Command on Sunset Road Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018.

The skies around Nevada's largest cities are about to see more drone aircraft, after federal agencies picked the state for testing remote-controlled vehicles in urban airspace.

The Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation announced Jan. 15 that the Nevada UAS Test Site Smart Silver State program will oversee testing in Reno, with additional testing in suburban Henderson near Las Vegas and the Colorado River resort city of Laughlin.

Other sites picked were Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems in North Dakota and the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the nine-month Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management System Pilot Project is separate from the traditional FAA air traffic management system. It aims to integrate drone flights within the nation's airspace system, create a shared information network and gather for FAA rulemaking.

Chris Walach, executive director of the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, said will involve flying unmanned vehicles in urban areas beyond line-of-sight for deliveries, surveillance and remote-sensing operations.

The center is a nonprofit that works under the Governor's Office of Economic Development to promote the state's drone industry.

"This is going from the little league of within-visual-line-of-sight for drone operations to advanced protocols and concepts," Walach said. "This will certainly contribute to . advancing the industry for package delivery and other operations that need to occur inside a city."

Walach said testing will use new systems designed by NASA to help airport tower controllers see drones in flight.

Nevada was one of seven FAA-designated unmanned aircraft system test sites in the running.

Partners include Nevada airspace developers such as Praxis Aerospace Concepts International and AviSight.

In a statement released through the Governor's Office of Economic Development, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve called the state's selection a sign that Nevada is emerging as a leader in the unmanned aircraft industry.

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak called it "one more example of what our state and communities have to offer in today's most exciting, emerging technologies."

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems was founded in 2013 with support from then-Gov. Brian Sandoval and $5 million in seed money from the state. Walach said the nonprofit also uses money from vendors and government contracts.

He said that additional funding will help Nevada remain competitive with states such as New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo last May announced a $30 million state investment in drone industry development.

Nevada was one of six states chosen in 2013 as a test site for drones while the FAA developed operating regulations.

In 2014, the Nevada program was the first in the nation with FAA approval to issue airworthiness certificates on its own.