Drones of Midtown: An inside look at the Innovation Center

Reno’s Midtown District has transformed many times through the ages. The cacophony of the railroad became the purr and rumble of traffic. The industrial din of warehouses and garages shifted to lively discussion and distant, only just discernible live music lilting on the breeze, to the sounds of construction, renovation, and renewal. An area of the Biggest Little City once dormant is now bustling–the restaurants, shops, and bars overflowing into summer streets full of festival, gaiety, and culture. Today, Midtown stands as a symbol of entrepreneurial tenacity and ingenuity, and in the ever-evolving soundscape the district offers, if you listen closely, you can hear the drone of progress.

It’s drones (plural) that are heralding progress in the area–more accurately, a drone center: the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center (NAASIC). The entire building, known overall as simply the Innovation Center, is a multifaceted project that seeks not only to facilitate the relationship between academics and the tech industry, but also to really start bridging the gap between two of Reno’s most culturally rich and active areas, namely Midtown and the university.

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The building itself was formerly Reno’s community development center, and now that UNR has signed a 14-year lease with the city, it stands to be utilized to similar ends–and better than ever before. Starting autumn 2014, NAASIC will occupy 70 percent of the top floor of the three-story building, sharing that floor with Nevada Industry Excellence (NVIE), an organization that helps small manufacturing and mining companies  partner together and expand for mutual benefit (and currently reaches more than 1,200 businesses). NVIE, which is currently located on the UNR campus, is extending its reach to include autonomous systems and other tech exploits–and, of course, connect them with relevant and interested parties in the industries.

Professor of Mechanical Engineering Kam Leang is one of many people from UNR and beyond who helped put the project together. When Nevada was first slated to become a  drone testing area for the FAA in 2013, Professor Leang recalls that the general feeling in the autonomous-systems circles was that they “should plow ahead and create a minor program.” The success and attention of that college minor program is just one of the factors that helped make the Innovation Center a reality. Funding, which is always an issue, comes predominantly from the state’s Knowledge Fund, to the tune of $10 million dollars, a generous but not surprising allocation considering the enthusiasm this project is generating. Other funding is coming from the military and the National Science Foundation.

“Designation as an FAA test site and the minor program positioned UNR as a drone hub,” said Leang. “We’ve already had [drone] companies asking to move to Reno and partner with UNR.” This kind of partnership is exactly what the center is aimed at facilitating.Right now in this field, there is a huge need for faculty expertise in business and vice versa. “There are opportunities on the research front and on the economic development side of things,” said Leang.

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This attitude of merging business and research at the university level can be seen throughout the entire project. For example, while NAASIC is currently state funded, it’s designed to be self-sustaining through its projects. Using proven industry outreach methods, the goal is to provide kick starts and/or matching funds to a variety of projects, which would in turn fund the space itself. One such method that Professor Leang described is instituting industry “membership fees” that would let companies take advantage of university facilities and partner on creating intellectual property. Even with the funding the center already has, the plan is to provide approximately five drone projects a year with $10,000 to $15,000 to get off the ground (or whatever metaphor works best with what the autonomous system is designed to do, be it swim, walk, fly, find and defuse bombs, assist with search and rescue, improve situational awareness, or push the limits of advanced manufacturing). Only projects with a high level of commercial viability will be funded.

Leang said that it will likely take a few years to really prove the concept, but that the Innovation Center has the “potential to be a game changer. Working with industry on this level is not trivial. We’re figuring out ways to help professors and companies succeed together–that’s the vision.” If the model is indeed proven to be successful, its next stop is UNLV. Not even the sky is a limit for the advanced autonomous systems that will be coming out of the Midtown Innovation Center, tested at the Stead airport, and proudly marked with ‘Made in Nevada’. This extension of the university, this footprint in Midtown, is only the beginning for our fair state’s tech future.