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NASA Drones, Drone Package Delivery Tested In Reno

NASA doesn’t have a space center in Nevada, but the agency is doing work here.  

Nevada is one of seven places that has federal approval to test commercial drones, and just last month, NASA flew five of them at the Reno-Stead Airport.

Drone package delivery is also being tested. The site set a record recently for longest distance drone delivery.

Chris Walach is the director of the Nevada Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, which operates a half-dozen sites around the state. 

“Our charter from the FAA really allows us to be an outlet for the commercial UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] industry,” he said.

Walach said Nevada really made a name for itself in the drone world because of the large military drones that were flown out of Creech Air Force Base. Those drones are known as "bigs," meaning they're bigger than 55 pounds. But right now, most of the innovation and modification is going on with the 'smalls,' which are the drones that are 55 pounds are smaller.

Nevada is at the center of much of that development and testing.

“If it has to do with drones, generally the Nevada Test Site will be involved with that in one aspect or another,” Walach said.

Walach said the industry is exploding and drones are now being used in all kinds of industries to increase safety and capability. He said it is difficult to keep up with the growth, but Nevada's strong business environment and great weather mean it is a perfect spot for drone companies to set up shop. 

One of the biggest hurdles that drone testers and developers are working to overcome is making drones fully automated. Right now, a human is still in the loop, but eventually, Walach said, the drones will be able to operate outside of what is known as a line of sight.

“The systems have the capability to fly beyond line of sight." he explained, "It’s just the industry, the FAA, and across the commercial UAS industry they’re not quite there in doing that from one point to another without implementing other safety measures,” he said.

Eventually, Walach said there will be millions of drones flying around the country, which is why they're working on NASA's air traffic control system that will create paths for flying drones, just like the flight paths airlines use.

“Our ultimate goal would be to create these air corridors that will allow UAS and drone operators and companies to fly from Las Vegas to Reno using approved air corridors,” he said. 



Chris  Walach, director, Nevada Unmanned Aircraft Systems

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.