weather icon Partly Cloudy

Meet the man who’s helped transform Nevada’s drone industry

Take a glance around Chris Walach’s office, and you’ll pick up hints of his past.

His desk inside the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems office — bare aside from his computer, his phone and a few sticky notes — speaks to his military background: organized and efficient. Documents stacked to the side are addressed to Dr. Chris Walach, showing how far he has come since dropping out of high school.

In just six years, Nevada’s drone industry has gone from nonexistent to the second most robust in the country. Walach, senior director of the NIAS, is one of the driving forces behind the industry’s growth.

At the end of 2013, Nevada was named one of six Federal Aviation Administration drone test sites in the country and the only one to encompass an entire state. Now it’s home to a center of excellence that promotes public safety in the airspace and has partnered with international companies to advance autonomous systems.

Both of those programs are managed by the NIAS, which also oversees the operations of Nevada’s drone test site.

“There’s definitely been a significant amount of growth” in Nevada’s drone industry, said Gerald Van Hoy, a private consultant for the robotics and drone industries. “Now you’re seeing more commercial applications than you were before. … I’d say that (Nevada is) definitely (a leader) because of the fact that the state has been intelligent about its approach to the drone industry.”

Walach said he leads the NIAS’ focus on using small businesses, research and development and technology demonstrations to advance the local drone industry.

When the Governor’s Office of Economic Development approached Walach about working for the NIAS three years ago, he was immediately interested. He would be able to draw not only on his aviation experience from the Army, but on the problem-solving skills he learned while getting his doctorate.

As senior director, Walach’s role is to collaborate with research institutions, build relationships with companies and attract drone-related businesses to Nevada.

“It was another challenge,” he said.

A different perspective

Walach is used to overcoming difficulties. He spent much of his time on the road growing up, traveling state to state with his three siblings and mother as she looked for work. Sometimes that meant cramming into a single hotel room for the night; other times they’d be homeless and living in the car for weeks.

Eventually, the family settled in Las Vegas. Walach dropped out of Eldorado High School at the end of his sophomore year after feeling like school wasn’t teaching him anything useful. He started his first full-time job at 15 as a busboy, cleaning tables and silverware at a truck stop just off Interstate 15.

“It’s a perspective that will always stick with me,” he said.

After receiving his GED through an accelerated UNLV-led program at Clark County Evening High School, he enrolled in the Army at 17. There, he rose to senior lieutenant colonel, battalion commander and master aviator of an Apache Longbow helicopter unit.

After retiring from the Army in 2008, Walach received Master of Science and Doctor of Management degrees.

“Going after a PhD doctorate, that’s the highest education offered. So that’s what I set out to do,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, you might as well be the best.”

That mindset has followed Walach to the NIAS, where he has set out to make Nevada a global leader in the drone industry — a goal that would have seemed nearly impossible just six years ago.

Rapid growth

Before 2012, Nevada’s drone industry was “nonexistent,” said local attorney Joe Brown, who was appointed to the committee that prepared Nevada’s FAA test site application.

That year, the Nevada Board of Economic Development laid out a plan to help diversify the local economy. The state was still feeling the aftereffects of the great recession, with the unemployment rate more than 3 percent above the national average.

State officials hoped that growing various targeted industries would cushion the state from another major downturn. These included sectors like clean energy, health services and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Brown was one of 15 selected to help expand the latter, and he joined the Nevada Autonomous Systems Panel to coordinate an application for Nevada to become a designated FAA test site.

“We were a long shot,” Brown said. The budget “was almost nothing. … We didn’t have any kind of drone infrastructure or business in a private sector in Nevada.”

But the state beat the odds. In December 2013 — after nearly two years of working to put the state on the map in this industry — Nevada became the only state chosen as a test site. The NIAS was established to oversee the state’s bid for the test side and, eventually, the site’s operations. Today, the FAA looks to Nevada for assistance on drone research and testing.

Five years after its launch, the NIAS reports that it has helped create about 200 jobs in the drone industry, and it expects to create 400 to 500 more in the next year and a half. The institute is also working toward creating an air corridor that would allow drones to fly beyond visual line of sight, and has formed partnerships with international companies to advance technology for future fields like space mining.

“He works well getting people to work together and setting up operations in state and out of state,” said Derek Armstrong, deputy director of the GOED.

Nevada’s future

With all of the work he’s doing for the NIAS — including multiple trips to Poland and Canada to drum up support for partnerships — Brown said he’s unsure how Walach finds the time to sleep.

“He’s the Energizer Bunny,” Brown said. “He just has a lot of drive and works very, very hard.”

Business Facilities magazine ranked Nevada second among states for its drone industry this year, with New York coming in first.

Brown said the local drone industry’s development is going slower than expected with its “shoestring budget,” but he still believes it has the potential to become a major business segment in Nevada.

“I think we’re going to be number one. … Give me five years,” he said. “I think having Chris there, our chances are increased significantly.”

Walach said community ties will help propel Nevada to becoming the leading drone industry in the nation.

“Without having the tens of millions of capital investment into (Nevada’s autonomous system industry) like some other states, we were ranked number two in the nation. That is indicative of the community working together to advance policy and procedures and different unmanned aviation categories,” he said. “My goal is going to have to be working with more of the community and bringing in stakeholders together that have the same common goals for the autonomous systems industry.”

NIAS is working to launch its Institute of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — or iSTEM — of Drones program. The subsidized program will work to close the achievement gap for students of all ages by exposing them to STEM technology and providing hands-on training to building and designing drones and their software.

“If we’re not pushing STEM from high school to college, we’re going to continue to see the workforce issues that we see (today in Nevada),” Walach said. “If we don’t build that base, we’re going to be lost in the dust by other states or other countries that are investing a lot of money into education, STEM and research and development.”

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
How much do Las Vegas casino CEOs make?
Las Vegas gaming CEOs made anywhere between $1 million and $24 million last year, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ((Las Vegas Review-Journal)
30-year-old Rio needs a little TLC
Nearly 30 years after the Rio opened, the red and blue jewel that helped catapult Las Vegas to a new level with its buffet and nightclub has lost its status along with its shine.
The latest on the Drew Las Vegas - VIDEO
Eli Segall recounts his tour of the Drew Las Vegas, formerly the Fontainebleau, on the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pinball Hall of Fame to move near south Strip
Operators of the Pinball Hall of Fame have been approved to build a new, larger arcade near the south edge of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard near Russel Road. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
National Hardware Show underway Las Vegas
The National Hardware Show kicked off Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Caesars for sale?
Caesars Entertainment Corp. has been swept up in takeover speculation since the company’s share price tumbled last year amid disappointing earnings and concerns over a recession. Amid the decline, hedge funds scooped up shares. Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn began buying shares of Caesars as early as January. Icahn acquired nearly 18 percent by mid-March. In February Icahn called on the Caesars board to study a sale as a way to boost shareholder value.
Las Vegas home prices
Las Vegas home prices grew fastest among major markets in February for the ninth straight month. But amid affordability concerns, the growth rate has slowed down. Southern Nevada prices in February were up 9.7% from a year earlier, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. The last time Las Vegas' price growth fell below 10% was in September 2017, S&P Dow Jones Indices reported.
Free Parking Coming To Wynn
Free parking will come to the Wynn and Encore resorts on May 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Founding Venetian employees talk about 20 years at the Strip resort
The Venetian, which opened May 3, 1999, is celebrating 20 years on the Las Vegas Strip. Seven original employees talk about opening the luxury resort and working there for two decades. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Circa aiming for December 2020 opening
The 1.25-million-square-foot property will have 44-stories and 777-rooms. It will also have a separate nine-story, 1,201-space parking garage.
Boxabl official explains the building concept
Boxabl business development manager Galiano Tiramani shows off a room built by his company. (Blake Apgar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TI/Mirage Tram reopens
The tram that shuttles guests between TI and Mirage reopened this week after being closed for much of 2018.
Las Vegas Convention Center expansion taking shape
Renderings and actual footage show how the Las Vegas Convention Center is evolving.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at Las Vegas convention
Former Starbucks CEO and potential presidential candidate Howard Schultz spoke at the Epicor Insights user conference at Mandalay Bay Convention Center Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Drew Las Vegas to open in the second quarter of 2022
The 67-story Drew Las Vegas is slated to open in the second quarter of 2022 at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NAB Day 1 (Time Lapse)
NAB kicked off at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
National Association of Broadcasters Show shows 1mm thick 8K TV with 22.2 channel digital sound
Japan’s NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories booth featured a 1mm thick 8K TV system used in conjunction with a 22.2 channel digital sound system at the National Association of Broadcasters Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada shoppers react to Smith’s no longer accepting Visa credit cards
On March 1, Smith’s announced that it would no longer be accepting Visa credit cards at any of its 142 supermarkets, including the 45 in Nevada.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission asks how long Wynn executives knew about misconduct
Business reporter Rick Velotta gives an update on the adjudicatory hearing on the suitability of Wynn Resorts to retain its gaming license in Massachusetts.
Henderson app developer part of Startup in Residence
Henderson based developers of the app On Point Barricade are taking part in Startup in Residence, a North America program dedicated to pairing tech companies with governments. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sam's Town employees and customers talk of their love for the iconic casino
Longtime Sam's Town employees and customers love each other and love their casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas apartments rents
Las Vegas’ apartment market has accelerated in recent years. Developers are packing the suburbs with projects, landlords are on a buying spree, and tenants have filled buildings.
William Boyd talks about the birth of Sam's Town
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Sam's Town, William Boyd, executive chairman of Boyd Gaming and son of hotel namesake Sam Boyd, talks about how the casino became one of the first local properties in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
High Roller observation wheel turns five
The world’s tallest observation wheel celebrates it’s fifth year on Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Escape Room Industry Growing In Las Vegas
Escapology employees discuss the growing escape room industry in the U.S. and Las Vegas. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Impact of parking fees on visiting the Las Vegas Strip
There are no data showing a relationship between Strip resort and parking fees and the number of out-of-state visitors to Las Vegas. But there are data showing a relationship between Strip parking fees and the number of local visitors to the the Strip. ‘’As a local, I find myself picking hotels I visit for dinner or entertainment, based on whether they charge for parking or not,”’ said David Perisset, the owner of Exotics Racing. ‘’It is not a matter of money, more of principle.’’ A 2018 survey by the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance found 36.9 percent of Clark County residents reported avoiding parking at Strip casinos that charge for parking. 29.1 percent reported avoiding using any services from a Strip casino that charges for parking.
MGM's sports betting deals
MGM Resorts International signed a sports betting sponsorship agreement with the NBA in July It was the first professional sports league to have official ties with a legal sports betting house. The deal came just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting sports betting in most states. In October, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the NHL. In November, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the MLB. Financial terms of Tuesday’s deal and earlier partnerships have not been announced.
Faraday puts Las Vegas land on the market
Nearly two years after Faraday Future bailed on its North Las Vegas auto factory, the company has put its land up for sale. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein on running the iconic property
Kenny Epstein, owner of the El Cortez Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, talks about Jackie Gaughan mentorship and answers rumors about bodies in the basement at the mob-era casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
LVCVA recommends construction of underground people mover
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced the recommendation for an underground people mover for the convention center. The system would have the potential to expand and connect Downtown and the resort corridor all the way to McCarran. (Michael Quine/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada’s real estate industry blamed wrong enemy when bubble burst

State lawmakers approved a bill in 2015 — a decade after Las Vegas’ wild building spree — that raised barriers to pursuing lawsuits alleging shoddyconstruction. A measure now working its way through the Democratic-controlled Legislature would wipe out or change provisions of that law.

CEOs get $800K pay raise, leaving workers further behind

Pay for CEOs at S&P 500 companies rose to a median of $12 million last year, including salary, stock and other compensation, according to data analyzed by Equilar.