The era of pilotless commercial aircraft has begun in Nevada and the first drone test flights are expected by May, a team from the state’s program management office told the board of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development on Jan. 16.

Details of the plan to grow what is expected to be an $11 billion-a-year industry were unveiled to a packed board room at Gov. Brian Sandoval’s Las Vegas office.

Nevada was notified Dec. 30 that it had been selected one of six states designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to test unmanned aerial systems. The FAA’s goal is to integrate unmanned aircraft into the U.S. commercial airspace by the end of September 2015.

Four test sites have been identified in Nevada, with a facility at Boulder City Municipal Airport the closest to the Las Vegas metropolitan area. Other sites include Stead Airport north of Reno, Fallon’s municipal airport and Desert Rock, a private airfield near Mercury associated with the Nevada National Security Site.

“This was a monumental event that puts us on the ground floor for the next big thing in aviation,” Sandoval said Thursday. “This has been in the works for two years, but it’s one thing to have an idea, but another to execute it.”

Within a decade, the UAV industry is expected to employ 15,000 people in the state — about the size of the workforce of Nevada’s mining industry. Unmanned aerial systems operators make an average of more than $80,000 a year and the average annual salary of a pilot is more than $110,000.

Five other states also were designated as test sites on Dec. 30, but experts say Nevada is expected to be the first authorized by the FAA to begin test flights.

The state already had designated $1 million in the budget plus $4 million in contingency funds to establish the nonprofit Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program Management Office.

Confident that Nevada would be selected, a team of more than 30 experts in UAS technology and management began working on the details of the state’s plan as it prepared 875 pages of application documents to the FAA.

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The NIAS contracted with Bowhead Systems and Technology Group to coordinate the UAS office startup. Bowhead operates the Navy’s UAS operation in Maryland. In July, Bowhead, under native Nevadan Mike Bradshaw, opened a new western regional office in Las Vegas.

One of the reasons Nevada was selected as a test site is that it’s been home to unmanned military drone operations for two decades. Unmanned Predator aircraft operate from Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas and pilots and systems operators — who were tapped for expertise when the state made its application to the FAA — live in Southern Nevada.

Commercial drones operating in civilian airspace won’t be as large Predators or Globalhawks, another military unmanned system. Most of the UAVs to be tested near Boulder City and the other state sites are expected to be smaller and carry payloads of less than 50 pounds.

Jonathan Daniels and James Fleitz of Bowhead summarized key aspects of the state plan:

  • There will be four test ranges in the Nevada network: North, South, East and Boulder City. The Boulder City range will include the airspace over Clark and Lincoln counties, and the South will include Nye and Esmeralda counties.
  • With Nevada’s 31,500 square miles of restricted airspace — more than all of the other five test site selections combined — to work with, each of the state’s test areas will have similar testing procedures. But the different sites will enable the state to gather data in a variety of climates and geographic settings.
  • Testing will start with simple operations — flights with “visual line of sight operations.” In other words, pilots will always be able to watch the aircraft as they fly. As testing progresses, the boundaries of flight will expand. So, too, will the sophistication of anti-collision measures and tests. Fleitz said until the FAA signs off on integrating UAVs into commercial airspace, there won’t be any test flights over populated areas or near routes used commercially.
  • Low-altitude small UAVs offer major opportunities in the commercial world including assistance to first responders, survey resources for mining, power generation and electrical infrastructure, waterways, transportation infrastructure and mapping. Another application: freight and parcel delivery. State officials expect Nevada will have the first drone package deliveries in the country in rural parts of the state.
  • The state already has begun engaging students in programs that move them toward careers in the UAS era. Working with the Nevada System of Higher Education, the state office has encouraged the development of UAS, robotics and autonomous systems programs. Last summer, more than 80 middle-school students participated in a program that brought them together with industry leaders and pilots to explain real-life drone applications, experience and future job prospects.

While the FAA is focused on safety, it’s not going to develop regulations on one of the stickiest issues involving UAVs — privacy concerns.

Knowing that privacy issues will occur, the state opted to take the lead in developing a standard and will conduct meetings to gather public sentiment. In the meantime, the FAA is requiring all test sites to comply with privacy laws and is requiring all test sites to keep records of all flights due to the potential of privacy law violations.

Nevada intends to lead the nation in privacy policy through strict regulation of its flights.

Throughout the meeting, participants used phrases like “the Silver State is the gold standard for UAVs” and “Nevada could become the Silicon Valley of unmanned flight.”

“I think one of the things I’d like to hear someday,” Fleitz said, “is that they want their industry to become the Nevada of UAVs.”

©2014 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)