Governor tours Reno drone plant, touts advantage of Nevada testing

RENO — As Nevada vies to become one of six federal sites selected to test the future commercial use of drones, Gov. Brian Sandoval on Thursday took a close-up look at the technology for himself.

Sandoval visited a Reno company, Drone America, which is developing the unmanned aerial vehicles for use in situations such as disaster relief and emergency response.

“We’re in the business of creating livelihoods and saving souls if we can do it,” company owner Mike Richards said.

Richards gave Sandoval and other state officials a tour of the Reno facility, where several drones of various sizes were on display.

They are all entirely manufactured in Nevada by the company’s 18 employees.

“To bring manufacturing jobs back into the state is key,” Richards said. “It should be every state bringing that core competency back. People here are really smart. They know how to do it.”

Richards said the company and the state both have the opportunity to grow economically if the FAA designates Nevada as one of six areas for drone testing for future deployment of the vehicles in commercial capacities in U.S. airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to name the testing areas by the end of the month.

“If you add up all the airspace in Nevada that is available for unmanned systems, it equals all the other contenders throughout the U.S.,” he said. “If we can fly locally and even assist the FAA in the development of their rule set for safe operations of unmanned systems, it is a huge advantage.”

Sandoval said he was impressed and excited to visit Drone America and find that such cutting-edge technology is being developed in Nevada.

“There are great opportunities for partnerships with the universities and for applications that are unique to Nevada in firefighting and agriculture,” he said.

There are international applications too, Sandoval said.

The drone designs by the company range in size from a small vehicle the size of suitcase named Huginn, from Norse mythology, to what Richards said is the first such vehicle designed for firefighting, the much larger Ariel 22 Scooper Drone, which is closer to the size of a car. The plan is to design the drone so that it can not only detect hot spots but will be able to suppress a small fire before it can grow.

One of the smaller drones had a price tag of $400,000, and the larger models would be more costly.

Richards said the company cannot fly its drones in Nevada unless it is in conjunction with an entity that receives government funds, such as a university or law enforcement. In such an arrangement, airspace and an altitude is assigned for drone use by the FAA.

The company has a memorandum of understanding with the Desert Research Institute to establish what would be the world’s first autonomous systems weather modification test center.

DRI has been involved in cloud seeding efforts in Nevada for many years.

“Those operations are currently highly dangerous for manned aircraft,” Richards said. “And we can provide a system that can do the job for less money.”

The Nevada Board of Examiners this week approved $1.46 million in funding to boost drone testing programs if the FAA picks Nevada. The Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee might consider the funding request at its meeting Monday.

The four sites in Nevada where drone testing would occur are the Fallon Naval Air Station, the Stead Airport north of Reno, the Boulder City Airport and Desert Rock near the Nevada National Security Site.

Steve Hill, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the drone project could create 15,000 jobs and have an economic impact in Nevada between $2.5 billion and $8 billion annually.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.

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