Nevada to see first civil aviation drone test flight this summer

Nevada will see its first civil aviation drone test flight this summer at a private airfield on the Nevada National Security Site north of Las Vegas near Mercury.

The Federal Aviation Administration on Monday approved a two-year certificate of authorization for the state to conduct its first tests, the third state to receive the designation from the federal agency.

“Nevada’s FAA test sites are officially open for business,” said Steve Hill, director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which has spearheaded the state’s efforts to become a test site, the first step in gradually opening U.S. airspace to unmanned aerial vehicles.

The first flight will be at Desert Rock Airport, a private facility operated by the Department of Energy. The certificate of authorization allows the use of an unmanned vehicle for a first-responder exercise in which the drone will provide overhead views of the exercise.

State officials had no additional information on the scope of the first flight and a date.

The Federal Aviation Administration said an Insitu ScanEagle, which was first flown by the U.S. Navy in 2005, would be used in the test. Insitu is a wholly owned subsidiary of Boeing and the ScanEagle is 4½ feet long with a wingspan of 10.2 feet.

The FAA said the vehicle would fly at or below 3,000 feet, monitored by a visual observer and a mission commander.

The agency said Nevada’s research would focus on unmanned system standards and operations as well as operator standards and certification requirements. The site’s activities also would include a concentrated look at how air traffic control procedures will evolve with the introduction of unmanned vehicles into the civil environment and how the aircraft will integrate with the nation’s next-generation control systems.

Desert Rock Airport has a single runway that is 7,515 feet long, but the ScanEagle doesn’t need a runway to take off, instead using a catapult launcher.

Nevada has four sites designated for systems tests. The closest to the Las Vegas Valley is at Boulder City Airport south of the city.

Two other Nevada test sites are at Fallon Municipal Airport and Stead Airport near Reno.

Nevada economic development leaders say unmanned aerial vehicles are the next frontier in commercial aviation, believing that some unmanned systems will replace flights that are either too dangerous or too tedious for piloted aircraft.

“Today marks a historic day in Nevada’s next chapter and the future of commercial aviation in our state,” said Gov. Brian Sandoval. “For decades, Nevada has been a hidden asset for the military in developing and flying unmanned aerial systems, and this certificate of authorization provides our state with the opportunity to use this knowledge to help lead in the development of a civil unmanned aerial systems industry.”

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also heralded the announcement.

“Unmanned aerial systems are the future of aviation and there is no place better than Nevada to test these technologies safely and at the same time, bring so many good paying jobs to our state while doing so,” he said.

State officials spent more than a year preparing a proposal to become one of six states to host test sites for unmanned systems for civil aviation. In December, Nevada was confirmed as one of the six states along with Alaska, North Dakota, Texas, New York and Virginia.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce was the first state to receive clearance for its test sites and began operations in early May in a program to collect data for monitoring crops. The University of Alaska received permission for flights to track and monitor wildlife, also in May.

Contact reporter Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow him on Twitter @RickVelotta.