The Sky is the Limit for Drone Industry in Nevada

Within the first decade of commercial use, the U.S. drone sector is expected to create more than 100,000 jobs and have an $83 billion economic impact.

The Datron Scout in action. Photo courtesy of Drone Systems/Datron. Photo courtesy of Drone Systems/Datron.

In the not-too-distant future, Las Vegas roofers will use drones to inspect the top of a house before climbing up there, or police officers will send unmanned aircraft to help find missing children.

At least that’s how Michael Toscano sees the nascent industry taking shape.

Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a drone-industry lobbying group in Arlington, Va., sees big potential, and big dollars, for unmanned aircraft in Nevada and around the country.

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to integrate drones into commercial airspace by fall 2015, and late last year it picked Nevada as one of six states to test such aircraft. Four test sites have been picked for the state, with the closest to Las Vegas being the Boulder City Municipal Airport.

The first test flights are expected by May, officials say.

Nevada political, business and education leaders pushed for the test-state designation, predicting that drones will be a $2.5 billion industry for the state and create 12,000 to 15,000 jobs.

Within the first decade of commercial use, according to Toscano, the U.S. drone sector will create more than 100,000 jobs and have an $83 billion economic impact.

Toscano, a 59-year-old Rhode Island native, came to Las Vegas this week to attend a National Air Traffic Controllers Association conference at Planet Hollywood.

He spoke with VEGAS INC on Wednesday, March 26 at the hotel about unmanned aircraft, privacy concerns and why he doesn’t like the word "drone." Edited excerpts:

Question: As a test state, what kind of jobs could Nevada get?

Answer: There are jobs for the actual testing of products and services. More importantly, it’s the commercial jobs that are created — precision agriculture, pipeline and power-line monitoring, aerial filming for movies. Anything that humans know how to do, these systems are an extension of your eyes and ears. Unmanned aircraft systems are very good at being a delivery system, and they’re very good at situational awareness, seeing things before you make decisions — search-and-rescue, firefighting, roofing. There are things we haven’t even thought about yet.

Why is it good to be a test state?

You get to be involved at the ground level in determining safety standards, or the concerns we have to deal with.

What are the current commercial uses for these aircraft?

They can’t be used commercially. There’s only one use authorized by the FAA — ConocoPhillips can use it in the Arctic for oil exploration and wildlife monitoring. It was approved this past fall. That is the first test-case.

What about privacy concerns and considerations?

The test sites had to submit how they would deal with privacy issues. But when you talk about privacy in general, if you had a privacy concern, would you go to the FAA? That’s not what they do. The judicial system handles privacy. Every state has privacy laws, and most states have Peeping Tom laws. If you break those laws, you are held accountable. If I took a ladder, put it up against your house and looked in the window, I’d be breaking the law. If I did it from across the street with a high-powered pair of binoculars, I’d be breaking the law. If I did it with a manned helicopter outside your window, I’d be breaking the law, and if I did it with an unmanned system, I’d be breaking the law. There are probably cameras watching us right now. You go to a place like London, it’s the most wired city in the world. When you go out in public, your expectation is that someone knows where you are.

If you’re in your backyard, that’s private property but could be viewed from the air.

It can be viewed by a manned system today, can’t it? How many helicopters fly over your house? There are satellites that can take pictures.

But is that a good thing?

What is the core of the issue that you’re talking about? The issue is really big data. It’s the collection, analysis, storage, dissemination and destruction of data. That’s what you’re talking about, that’s what the civil liberties groups are talking about. How you collect it is really immaterial. You have to hold people accountable. You have a car? How fast can it go? If you drove 120 mph, you’d be thrown in jail. If you killed somebody doing it, you’d be thrown in jail for a very long time. You would have misused that technology for something it wasn’t intended to do.

How do you regulate the operators, pilots and drone companies then?

If you want to misuse any technology, that’s a potential that exists. You have to hold people accountable. But most people are good; most people want to follow the rules. And so the technology for those people is going to be highly beneficial.

Can you fly a drone?

I could; it depends which ones you’re talking about. First of all, I wouldn’t called it a drone — I call them unmanned aircraft systems. The reason I don’t like the word drone is that it has a negative connotation — most people, when they hear the word drone, they think military, large, weaponized, hostile. They think Predators with Hellfire missiles. A commercial aircraft is not that; these things are far from that. There’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of education that needs to be done. I can remember when the Internet came in; people said they’d never put their banking on that, they’d never put their personal information on that. There was an apprehension about it. Any new technology, most people have a resistance to it.

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