The airport in Stead is making a pitch to be one of the test sites for drone technology. Today, we were invited to see a flight demonstration of the newest generation of unmanned aerial vehicles.
Close up, the drone looks like a child's toy…just 3 and a half feet long, made of carbon fiber and plastic and weighing only 9 pounds. A sneak peak of the future, sitting on concrete in Stead. Why did a New Zealand drone manufacturer come out to fly here? Krys Bart of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority told us it's because "We have the space...the airspace, the ground space, and Stead backs up to BLM land."
The weather is a "go" too. The pre-flight check involves setting the parachute, checking the flaps by remote control...then picking it up and giving it a good toss.
In flight, the drone floats in the air, looking somewhat bigger than it really is…but not making a sound. The pilot is on the ground, watching the instrument panel from his laptop. Just the fact that it's unmanned spells cheaper options for business. Simon Morris of Hawkeye UAV, the drone's maker, told us, "You got a smaller area you want to survey, we can come out and do it at a fraction of the cost. What can you use these for? Anything you can use for aerial photography. We're doing a lot of environmental work. We can do vegetation analysis...wetlands maintenance."
The airport authority's Krys Bart noted even more uses, from "Mining companies, agriculture and farming." How about for snooping? "No, that's a privacy issue. We're not going there."
But some already have gone there. Police departments, like Seattle's, are buying airborne surveillance drones and using them. You can't do much about it…a federal law passed last year allows drones in the lowest 400 feet of airspace. The FAA is also planning on authorizing drone use.
Morris and the rest of his Hawkeye crew insist their products are not for watching citizens from above their backyards. They look at their product as a far cheaper alternative to manned aerial photography and surveying flights. Whatever the use, it seems to be the future. And as long as it's is the future, Nevada's economic leaders would like a piece of it. Bart told us, "This is the leading edge. And if we as the state of Nevada want to stay in that leading edge, we need to grab these opportunities."
The FAA is now looking at airports across the U.S. to be test sites for drones. The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has applied for Stead to be one of those sites. The trade off? As they get cheaper and more common, the more eyes in the sky, the more we might wonder who is watching who.