Pilots voice opposition to drone test program

Strong public opposition to a state-sponsored drone testing program likely to land in Boulder City next year was expressed at the Airport Advisory Committee meeting Tuesday evening.

Boulder City Airport Manager Kerry Ahearn and Jonathan Daniels, technical director for the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, spoke about Nevada’s efforts to win a Federal Aviation Administration designation to be a test site for the integration of civil unmanned aircraft into national airspace.

If Nevada is selected, Boulder City has been identified as one of the state’s test ranges. The FAA is expected to announce its selections this month.

As part of an overview of the testing program, which is managed by the nonprofit, state-sponsored institute, Daniels attempted to address the safety concerns of local pilots.

The unmanned aircraft will be flown by professional pilots, visual lines of sight will be maintained and that during the initial testing stages small unmanned aircraft will be flown on the dry lake bed at low altitudes, he said.

Additionally, Daniels said thousands of hours will be put into ground tests before any aircraft are flown, the airport will be notified 60 days before any flights take place and aircraft will be painted in highly visible colors.

“These are not military ‘we don’t want you to see them’ systems,” he said. “These are commercial ‘we need you to see them’ systems.”

But even with Daniels’ reassurance that the program would be held to high safety standards, some at the meeting were strongly opposed to unmanned aircraft in Boulder City.

“As a pilot, I find this really, really disturbing,” said Jim Douglass, who said he has listened to numerous presentations about the program. “I have yet to have anyone tell me how this is going to affect my day-to-day flying operations.”

Local pilot Bill Reid was visibly angry as he approached the podium to comment.

“Putting these (unmanned) airplanes here in this airport is going to put everyone’s life in danger. Period,” he said.

Alan Stephen, vice president of corporate affairs for Grand Canyon Airlines/Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters, said he feared what would happen in a collision involving an unmanned aircraft.

Stephen said he recently met with Nevada officials in Washington, D.C., and understands the program’s economic benefit, which the state estimates would bring 4,000 new jobs and $2.7 billion to Nevada by 2025. However, he said there is more to consider.

“We’re here in the real world in Boulder City,” he said. “And we can’t risk having an accident that causes loss of life.”

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the FAA to integrate nonmilitary unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace by September 2015.

Nevada will likely be one of the six states selected to take part in the program, scheduled to begin Jan. 1.

However, Daniels told the committee that even without Nevada being a test site, civil drone integration will soon be coming to the state.

“It will happen in two years whether it’s us doing (the testing) or someone else,” Daniels said. “I’d rather have it happen here.”

Following the meeting, Vic Thomas, a Civil Air Patrol pilot and former Airport Advisory Committee chairman, said he was not worried about the safety of the testing program.

“The results of it are going to be with us whether we get involved or not, so let’s get involved,” he said.

The role of the committee is to advise the City Council on airport-related decisions. However, in March the Council voted to support the state application. It did so without review from the committee and without any opposition during public comment.

The city and the institute hosted a public workshop in April discussing the program. Local pilots asked safety-related questions and residents asked privacy-related questions, but the meeting did not have the fervor of Tuesday’s meeting.

Unfortunately, the recent backlash may be too little, too late.

“We don’t really have a lot of choice in the matter,” committee member Kurt Goodfellow said Tuesday.

The committee requested that it be updated on the program at its next meeting in January.

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