Drone home: NAASIC builds industry partnerships in new Nevada Innovation Center

Autonomous aerial vehicles

Unmanned aerial vehicle research in the state of Nevada has been cleared for takeoff.

Last December, Nevada was named one of only six UAV test sites in the United States by the Federal Aviation Administration, and the University of Nevada, Reno was awarded $3 million from the state's newly created Knowledge Fund to start the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center, or NAASIC.

"The vision for this initiative is to partner with the private sector to support innovation for advanced autonomous and manufacturing systems," said Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering. "This is a collaboration between our colleges and with the business community that will stimulate economic development."

NAASIC is a partnership led by the University that involves state government, regional agencies, private industry, and K-12 and higher education programs. The partnership aims to spur innovation and enhance Nevada's workforce.

"This has tremendous potential to become a hub of technology that will benefit the entire state," Maragakis said. "This is a true systemic approach to economic development. A number of agencies and organizations we already work with are coming together to generate a new level of engagement. At the heart of this is autonomous systems — whether aerial, land-based or manufacturing-based robotics."

NAASIC will be based at the new University of Nevada, Reno Innovation Center in downtown Reno and will focus on relatively mature technologies with strong commercialization potential. The downtown location will be a launch pad for gatherings of industry representatives where they can meet faculty and develop partnerships for research and development. It will also be a site for undergraduate senior capstone projects and provide space for students, faculty and businesses to innovate, design and develop autonomous systems.

"We are very excited to launch our new innovation center with NAASIC downtown and appreciate the City of Reno making the building available," said Heidi Gansert, the University's executive director for external affairs. "We anticipate the public private-partnerships that include students, faculty and the private sector will add to the ever increasing vibrancy of this great Reno area. With the Discovery Museum across the street, we look forward to new outreach opportunities for K-12 students as well."

Industry collaborations already underway include work with Drone America, Insitu, Flirtey and GloCal Venture Capital.

Applications of autonomous systems encompass a wide range of civilian and commercial areas, including advanced manufacturing, industrial robots, search and rescue, land management, and storm monitoring, to name a few.
Researchers within the College of Engineering are applying expertise in fields such as command and control, communications, and human factors to develop autonomous systems that can be deployed in diverse indoor and outdoor environments. Collaborations with researchers in other Colleges, including Liberal Arts and Science, are underway to test how these autonomous systems can contribute to existing research programs in areas such as environmental monitoring or public policy.

While the University's research expertise plays a critical role in the Center's ability to develop new technologies, NAASIC's success will be judged on measures related to economic development, including new patents, grant activity and start-up companies.

To spur innovation, NAASIC will offer competitive kick-start funding for teams that partner researchers with industry representatives to develop technologies that can be brought to market. An entrepreneur-in-residence will be housed at the Center to provide consulting and mentoring on how to develop marketable concepts.

Early estimates of NAASIC's economic potential are impressive. Projections suggest that by its third year of operation, the Center could have an impact of nearly $15 million, including the creation of 120 jobs.

To support its innovation efforts, the College launched a new minor program in unmanned autonomous systems in January 2014. The program combines courses in computer science and engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering to offer students skills in this emerging field.

"The opportunities this program brings to student education and competitiveness are exciting," Maragakis said. "This program will be instrumental in enhancing the state's ability to increase its workforce in an area that has been strategically identified as one of its economic development priorities."