States Vie to Conduct Drone Tests

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LAS VEGAS − The state of Nevada recently joined the crowded 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 F.A.A. information on how to safely use drones in domestic airspace, critical information for the agency as it prepares to meet a 2015 deadline for issuing guidelines on the technology. Currently, the agency grants permission to fly drones on a case-by-case basis. For the states that are selected, the hope is that they will become more attractive to big and small companies interested in the expanding market.

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 "largest amount of restricted airspace without commercial aircraft."

"You could basically fly from the south to the north end of the state or about 300 nautical miles," he said.

Mr. 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. "It's a state of the art research tool," Mr. Gertler said.

The technology could also be used for weather and climate research, and to monitor natural disasters like forest fires, Mr. Hill said.

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 F.A.A. will decide on the six finalists by the end of the year.

However they wind up using the technology, the federal government will be following each site closely to gather information for developing guidelines on safely integrating unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace by Sept. 30, 2015.

But even those guidelines are likely to be revised as the technology continues to develop, an F.A.A. official said.

The federal government is also seeking public comment until April 23 about how to safeguard the privacy of people on the ground near the test sites.

In Nevada, the public outcry has been muted, thus far. Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said "the concern isn't the drones themselves, it's their use, like any other tool." He said the group was following the process closely and hoped to see "strict guidelines" on their use.

Mr. Hill said Nevada may have another advantage in the competition: Senator Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the Senate.

"Obviously it helps to have the majority leader from your state," Mr. Hill said, noting that Mr. Reid helped set up a meeting last August between several members of the state's application team and the F.A.A. administrator, Michael P. Huerta, when Mr. Huerta was in Las Vegas for an annual conference.

Ben Gielow, government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit trade group, said t similar meetings had taken place between officials from other states and top F.A.A. officials.

"It shows the high-level importance of this technology and the opportunity to test it," he said.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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