State won’t be test site for drones

Colorado was among 18 states that missed a chance Monday to become a Federal Aviation Administration drone-testing site.

The FAA announced six states that will host sites for the agency to use as it develops operational guidelines for the unmanned aircraft: Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

The industry will continue development in Colorado, despite Monday’s setback, a state official said. Colorado’s application included 14 proposed test ranges statewide — one of them in Mesa County — spread over 35,000 square miles of airspace.

“We’re disappointed,” said Stan VanderWerf, former executive director of Colorado UAS, which spearheaded the state’s test site application. “We still feel we had by far the best offering for FAA, and we had many inside the industry tell us just that.”

Colorado was one of 24 states that submitted a bid for a test site.

The test site permits will be valid for five years.

For states awarded the test-site designation, “the assumption was FAA would grant a streamlined process” to fly the drones, VanderWerf said.

“In Mesa County,” he added, “you’d be looking at increased access to the airspace for research, probably working with Ben Miller (Mesa County Sheriff’s Office UAS director) and the sheriff’s office. That’s still possible, (FAA announcement) just makes it a little harder.”

Miller couldn’t be reached for comment Monday.

The FAA does not allow commercial use of drones but is working to set guidelines by the end of 2015. The Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 mandates that the FAA must integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.

The aircraft are seen as potential tools in commercial and civilian operations, including fighting wildfires, surveying crops and mapping out new roads.

An industry-commissioned study predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens drone restrictions on U.S. skies.

The study projected an average salary range for a drone pilot at $85,000 to $115,000.

While selecting test sites, the FAA said it considered geography, climate, ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, aviation experience and risk. The designations don’t come with a financial award from the government.

Mesa County has a national reputation for law enforcement use of drones. Economic development and government leaders gathered in Mesa County this past September, touting potential positive economic impact of UAS growth in Colorado.

The growing drone industry has critics among conservatives and liberals. Giving drones greater access to U.S. skies moves the nation closer to “a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” the American Civil Liberties Union declared in a report last December.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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