Game of drones

Nevada looks to the boom in unmanned aerial vehicles for an economic boost.

 

Greg Friesmuth, founder and CEO of Skyworks, test flies his company’s drone prototype in his Henderson, Nev. offices. Friesmuth is at the forefront of Nevada’s nascent drone economy, developing “unmanned aerial vehicles” for indoor uses, like academic research and underground search and rescue.
Christi Turner

With a beep and a whir, a small white drone takes to the air, hovering, pivoting and seeming to inquisitively scan its surroundings. Greg Friesmuth, its young pilot, launched his drone-building business, Skyworks, in Henderson, Nevada, last February. One of the first such businesses in the state, it grew out of a college engineering project, and is already so successful that Friesmuth has put his degree at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on hold.

Across town, UNLV instructor Jonathan Daniels presents his 30-plus students with a list of “potential uses for UAVs” — the unmanned aerial vehicles commonly known as drones. They include conservation, climate research, disaster recovery, search and rescue; there’s no mention of surveillance or weaponry. “This technology is something that can make your life better, every step of the way,” Daniels says.

This is the inaugural class of the university’s newly minted minor in unmanned aerial systems, designed to help build a highly educated, specialized workforce to drive the state’s nascent drone economy. With mining, construction and gaming faltering, Nevada is pursuing new industries, including designing, flying and developing software for drones.

One of Daniels’ students, Jinger (pronounced “Ginger”) Zeng, elaborates on the use of drones in search-and-rescue operations. “You can send in a drone with a camera that can scout out where the victims are before you send in a firefighter,” she says. In a collapsed mine, for example, a drone could locate trapped miners, even relay messages via speaker and microphone. Zeng, the chief operating officer of Skyworks, is so busy these days she can barely find time for her last few classes.

UNLV hopes its new 21-credit minor in UAS will produce many more Zengs and Friesmuths. If even a small percentage of the more than 2,000 students in its engineering department enroll in the program, it could churn out hundreds of new professionals each year. The department plans to add a major, a master’s and eventually a doctorate program. “We’d love for Vegas to be the Silicon Valley of drones,” Friesmuth says.

But some see drones as a serious threat to privacy and public safety. The school’s Department of Criminal Justice recently conducted a nationwide study on the subject. “It doesn’t matter how you ask the question, what sampling scheme you use,” says professor Terry Miethe. “There’s clear opposition.” Many fear drones as “eyes in the sky,” whether it’s a hobbyist drone photographing the scenery or a government agency monitoring people. “The big hover,” as Miethe calls it, tends to affront people’s sense of privacy, even in public places: Airborne drones invade our visual senses in a way that other, even more invasive monitoring mechanisms don’t.

Still, Nevada shows more support for drones than the rest of the nation — perhaps because this year the state was designated as one of six drone-testing sites for the Federal Aviation Administration, with its new Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems coordinating the testing. By the end of the year, building on findings from Nevada and other test sites, the FAA plans to propose regulations to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. But though universities and entrepreneurs are eager to promote Nevada’s drone economy, the forthcoming rules might stifle, rather than stoke, the industry. In late November, an FAA leak indicated as much. All drones less than 55 pounds — from battery-powered lightweights to gas-powered behemoths, with vastly different potential uses — may be grouped into a single regulatory category, for example, and commercial drone operators may need to obtain pilot licenses. “Ground-school skills that pilot certification gives you are really important — like how air traffic in general is operated,” Friesmuth says. “But to have to (learn) to fly a plane, or a helicopter, in order to get certified to fly drones commercially is a big barrier. Plus you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars doing it.”

For the most part, it’s still illegal for drones to operate commercially. Hobbyists are generally unregulated, but this June, the National Park Service temporarily banned drones from parks, citing concerns about wildlife harassment, noise and visitor safety. “As a hobbyist, you’re allowed to fly outside, but as a UNLV employee or a company employee, you can’t fly outside without FAA permission,” says engineering professor William Cuthbert. Skyworks avoids the issue by tailoring its drones for indoor uses, such as the kind of search-and-rescue scenarios Zeng described to her classmates.

Back in the UAS class, Daniels paints another drones-to-the-rescue picture: Weatherproof boxes located in the mountains could sense an avalanche, then automatically release drones to buzz around in search of signals from buried backcountry skiers. “You laugh!” Daniels tells his students. “But we’re not that far away.” 

He adds, “Eventually, we have to make it ubiquitous. Make it so robots are our friends.”