States compete to conduct test flights of drone aircraft

LAS VEGAS – The state of Nevada recently joined the bidding to be named a federal test site for the commercial use of pilotless aircraft under a program that will allow as many as six states to test the controversial but potentially lucrative technology for a five-year period.

Nevada is hoping its vast open spaces, powerful databanks and experience with military drones will help it stand out among the 37 states bidding for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to test the commercial uses of drones.

The amount of time and resources Nevada and the other states are dedicating to the effort shows the potential they see for getting an economic lift from a market that, by some predictions, may grow to $11 billion in the next decade, or nearly twice its current size.

The six sites will give the FAA information about how to safely use drones in domestic airspace, critical information for the agency as it prepares to meet a 2015 deadline for issuing guidelines for the technology. Currently, the agency grants permission to fly drones on a case-by-case basis.

Steve Hill, executive director of the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development and one of two people leading the state’s effort, said the application was important for Nevada, which has led the nation in unemployment, foreclosures and bankruptcies most of the time since the height of the recession.

The state is suited for testing drones, he said, because it has the “largest amount of restricted airspace without commercial aircraft.”

Hill also pointed to the SwitchNAP center in Las Vegas Valley, which Forbes magazine called the world’s largest data center, and the legacy of the state’s 25 years in military research and development with drones in the deserts north of Las Vegas.

Alan Gertler, vice president at the Desert Research Institute, is part of the team preparing the state’s application. He said drones could be used to help identify sources of geothermal energy or minerals, and to monitor chemical and biological systems.

Nevada began the application process in late February, along with 49 other applicants from 37 states. The states have 80 days from mid-February to complete the application; the FAA will decide on the six finalists by the end of the year.