Mesa County a drone zone?
Aircraft on display today, with focus on economic impact
The sign off the shoulder of Interstate 70 entering Mesa County reading “Monuments, Mesas and Memories” may need updating.
“More drones,” maybe?
That’s because a Colorado team pushing for unmanned aircraft development has included Mesa County as one of 14 proposed test ranges in Colorado in an application now pending before the Federal Aviation Administration.
Some members of that team, which is led by the University of Colorado at Boulder and has such stakeholders as regional economic development agencies, universities, industry associations and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, are scheduled to be in Grand Junction today to showcase unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), while promoting a host of public and private uses for the technology.
This amid a climate of privacy concerns which has at least one Colorado community taking aim at drones—literally.
“We really won’t be talking about the public safety piece of this,” Sheriff’s Department quartermaster and UAS program director Ben Miller said of a planned demonstration today. “We’re looking at this from an economic impact perspective.”
Miller’s work with UAS technology has earned Mesa County a national reputation for law enforcement use of drones. He’ll be demonstrating the Sheriff’s Department’s Falcon unit this morning at the new Colorado Law Enforcement Training Center in Clifton.
If Colorado’s pending application is approved by the FAA, Mesa County could be one of 14 Colorado test “ranges,” which aside from Mesa County, includes airspace close to Front Range airports and above private ranches, among other locations.
The FAA has said it will approve six test site applications nationally. Twenty-four states, including Colorado, are in the running for a site in keeping with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which mandates the agency integrate UAS into the national airspace. FAA’s site selections are expected to be announced in December.
Collectively, Colorado’s test site application includes more than 35,000 square miles of airspace, including Mesa County, according to Stan VanderWerf, executive director of the Colorado UAS team.
“We have the intention of trying to operate whether we win a test site or not,” VanderWerf said. “We’re anticipating (approval of) a test site will just allow us quicker FAA approval (for individual flights).”
While it would be helpful for Colorado to have that FAA test site designation, it doesn’t really need it for the UAS industry to take off, said Chris Miser, owner of Denver-based Falcon UAV.
Miser sold one of his 9-pound, carbon fiber and aluminum Falcon fixed-wing units to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in 2011. Miser, a former U.S. Air Force captain who developed the technology for the military in Iraq during the war, started his business in 2007 because he saw the potential.
And that potential has nothing to do with government spying or any other federal application, he said.
“Business is slow because everyone has this bad perception that (UAS) are nothing but bad, evil, killing, spying machines, and we’ve got to change people’s perception,” said Miser, who will be part of the Falcon demonstration in Clifton today.
“I don’t do any business with the government specifically for that reason,” he said. “Our focus is 100 percent doing civil applications. We don’t have any federal customers, nor do we intend to focus on federal customers. The civil industries are the ones who are going to be able to capitalize on this and take the best benefits from it.”
That means such things as oil and gas development, pipeline monitoring and agricultural uses, he said.
For pennies on the dollar, private drillers and farmers and ranchers can operate their businesses better using drones rather than traditional aerial technologies because it’s cheaper and more convenient to fly unmanned aerial systems, such as low-flying airplanes or helicopters.
Drones such as the ones Miser is peddling fly “lower and slower” and take high-definition photographs and videos of whatever their owners need, whether it be in inspecting pipelines, mapping for new drilling sites or checking crops.
“You’re able to get survey-quality data of the ground from the air that allows you to better plan how you’re going to install the next generation of oil and gas pipeline out there,” he said. “Farmers want to be able to monitor their crops during the growing season so they can more efficiently deploy resources, whether it be fertilizers, insecticides or whatever in areas where you see where crops aren’t growing well.”
Miser noted public safety components, too.
Last week, he volunteered his drone to help the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department deploy its resources in response to the recent floods, saying he was able to show where the worst damage was occurring in minutes, compared to what would have taken several hours from manned aircraft, which were grounded because of the stormy weather.
“It’s for logistics, where you can actually drive in to bring supplies or help people because you can clearly see in our images which roads are washed out, which ones have access, you can see how high the floods are and which houses are flooded,” he said. “You can do that damage assessment very quickly, rather than waiting for the flood waters to recede, and then going out and finding out how bad it is.”
That’s exactly why the Grand Junction Economic Partnership organized the demonstration and got Miser to come, said its executive director, Kelly Flenniken.
“We have a lot of available airspace and there are many different industry applications for it here,” Flenniken said. “There’s obviously the segment of the public safety aspects, plus we’ve got the ability to use (UAS) in the energy industry to go out and do monitoring. Same with ranching and agriculture. If we could lure a company that makes them, that could create jobs here.”
But like Miser, Flenniken asks local residents to keep an open mind about them, and not be shocked if they see one flying around town today.
“What I’m hoping will happen is people will recognize that we’re not trying to promote using (UAS) systems in a creepy, Big Brother, spy-on-you kind of way,” she said. “So please don’t shoot it down.”
VanderWerf, meanwhile, sees business opportunity for the Front Range community of Deer Trail, where efforts to issue drone-hunting licenses have received national attention in recent months. Federal authorities have warned against taking such shots.
“There are companies that are building small UAS which behave like certain birds for the purpose of shooting them down ... training for sport hunters,” VanderWerf said. “I’d hope Deer Trail would go find companies building them and bring them out to a skeet shooting range there.”