LVRJ; Nevada first: DRI seeds clouds using unmanned aircraft

CARSON CITY — For the first time in aviation history, a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft has successfully tested a cloud-seeding payload during an experimental flight in Nevada.

Flown at Hawthorne Industrial Airport under the state’s Federal Aviation Administration Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site designation, the Drone America Savant aircraft reached an altitude of 400 feet and flew for about 18 minutes Friday.

The drone — named the “Sandoval Silver State Seeder” in honor of Gov. Brian Sandoval’s support for the state’s drone industry — deployed two silver-iodide flares, successfully testing and demonstrating its ability to perform unmanned aerial cloud seeding operations.

“This is a tremendous accomplishment for the state of Nevada and everyone involved,” said the project’s lead scientist, Adam Watts, an assistant research professor at DRI and an expert in unmanned aircraft systems for ecological and natural-resources applications.

Led by the Desert Research Institute and supported by the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development through the Knowledge Fund, this first-of-its-kind project is helping Nevada address the ongoing impacts of drought and explore innovative solutions for natural-resource challenges such as augmenting regional water supplies.

The research team combines more than 30 years of weather modification research and expertise at DRI with the proven experience in aerospace manufacturing and flight operations of Reno-based Drone America, and the industry leading unmanned aerial data services of Las Vegas-based AviSight.

“We have reached another major milestone in our effort to reduce both the risks and the costs in the cloud seeding industry and help mitigate natural disasters caused by drought, hail and extreme fog,” said Mike Richards, president and CEO of Drone America. “With a wingspan of 11-feet, 10-inches and its light weight design (less than 55 pounds) the Savant is the perfect vehicle to conduct this type of operation due to its superior flight profile, long flight times and its resistance to wind and adverse weather conditions.”

Drone America performed the test flight under an FAA agreement in partnership with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems. This flight was the first use by DRI of the Nevada Test Site’s Certificate of Authorization, which grants authority to operate the Savant at altitudes up to 1,200 feet.

“The Nevada-based research and flight teams that produced these trend-setting results are clearly leading the industry with this innovative technology,” said Chris Walach, director for the FAA-designated Nevada Unmanned Aviation Test Site. “Conducting this unmanned cloud seeding test flight is a first flying in the National Airspace System and in Nevada.”

AviSight performed aerial support for the test flight with its manned aircraft, recording both infrared and HD video of the flight to support future system refinements and plans to conduct unmanned flights beyond visual line-of-sight.

The successful test is just the latest in a string of accomplishments in drone development in Nevada.

In March, Flirtey, an independent drone delivery company, successfully completed the first fully autonomous, FAA-approved urban drone delivery in the United States in an uninhabited residential setting in Hawthorne, about 300 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The company successfully delivered a package that included bottled water, emergency food and a first aid kit by drone.

And in April, Nevada and NASA announced they have teamed up in the drone business to develop an air traffic control management for drones weighing 55 pounds or less. The project is underway at the Reno-Stead Airport north of Reno.

Contact Sean Whaley at or 775-461-3820. Find @seanw801 on Twitter.

Las Vegas Review Journal 

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