Drones to the rescue? Rifle center may study public-safety uses

Rifle center may study use to aid public-safety tasks

A bill that has passed the Colorado House of Representatives would have a new state research facility in Rifle study the use of drones in firefighting and other public safety operations.

House Bill 17-1070 would provide for the research and a pilot drone program to be conducted by Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, which is based at the Rifle Garfield County Airport.

Rifle was selected in 2015 as the home for the center, which focuses on aerial firefighting research. It was created as part of legislation carried by former Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, which also required the state to acquire or contract for its own firefighting aircraft.

The drone legislation is sponsored by state Rep. James Wilson, R-Salida, and state Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose. It cleared the House in a 58-7 vote Monday and awaits action in the Senate.

The measure requires the center to study the integration of unmanned aircraft systems within certain state and local government public-safety work. Particularly, it would look at using the technology in functions relating to firefighting, search and rescue, emergency management and accident reconstruction.

The bill also calls for conducting a pilot program to study drone use, which would include deploying a team of drone operators to a region of the state designated a fire hazard.

The study is contingent on the center receiving sufficient grants, gifts and donations to undertake it. The goal is to have the center report back to the legislature with its findings by Sept. 1, 2018.

The center’s director, Melissa Lineberger, told Garfield County commissioners this week that the research would include testing various types of drones and payloads to see which work best for which missions. She said it would include cost-benefit analysis of questions such as whether it’s worth spending $80,000 on a commercial drone for a certain job, or a $1,300 hobby version can do it just as well.

She also noted that the legislation will consider privacy concerns surrounding drones, based on a discussion that came out of a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill.

The center already is delving somewhat into the subject of drones as a potential public safety tool. On Wednesday and Thursday, it and Chaffee County co-sponsored a summit on the subject in Nathrop, with vendors and public-safety officials in attendance. It included demonstrations and presentations, including about how to start a drone program.

In an update on the center, Lineberger told Garfield commissioners that eight people are employed there now and they are working on 12 projects. The center last year put in more than 2,000 research hours at the airport, she said.


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