Las Vegas council seeks a future involving unmanned-aircraft testing

Nevada’s effort to serve as a testing ground for unmanned aircraft got a stamp of approval Wednesday from the Las Vegas City Council over the objection of people who cited concerns about privacy and safety.

The council voted 6-0 in favor of a resolution urging the Federal Aviation Administration to choose Nevada as one of six sites for tests aimed at integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.

Backers say if Nevada is selected as a test site, the state would become a hub for companies that specialize in research, development and manufacturing of unmanned aircraft .

“It is an entire team of people that makes these things fly,” said Jonathan Daniels, an unmanned aircraft specialist at the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas .

Opponents of the resolution said the measure was a threat to safety and privacy.

Among concerns are that unmanned aircraft could go off course and crash in a populated area or be used by law enforcement and others for intrusive surveillance.

“The drones are used to kill innocent people in other countries,” said Cindy Lake, chairwoman of the Clark County Republican Party. “We are always told it is about jobs. This isn’t about jobs. This is about our rights.”

Michael Turley, a self-described “constitutional libertarian,” said broadening the use of unmanned aircraft will result in more intrusive police activity. “It is all about militarization of local law enforcement,” he said.

Council members, including Mayor Carolyn Goodman, acknowledged the privacy worries but said the opportunity to play a role at the forefront of a growing industry outweighed the concerns.

“We need to be No. 1 in this state in something other than gaming and tourism,” Councilman Steve Ross said.

Daniels said the testing that would occur should the FAA select Nevada as one of six sites wouldn’t involve peering into windows or flying over densely populated areas.

It would allow the loosening of FAA restrictions to allow manufacturers and other companies to conduct tests in remote areas to gather data that would help regulators write rules to govern the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace system.

Restrictions on commercial unmanned aircraft now are so strict that it is impractical to conduct tests in the United States. By allowing tests in certain areas, manufacturers could experiment with various designs and commercial applications.

Companies and government agencies seeking to use unmanned aircraft would have a financial incentive to locate pilots, mechanics, software engineers and support operations near test areas.

“We are going to write the procedures and the rules and regulations so we can safely bring this technology to bear,” said Air National Guard Col. James Fleitz, who spoke in favor of the resolution.

“This is not to develop sensors so I can see who you are, what you are and what you are doing on the ground.”

Proponents say Nevada is one of about 50 applicants for the six sites.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the selection should be done this year.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .