HIGH ON PO­TEN­TIAL

Colorado com­mer­cial drones ready to take o≠

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Ta­mara Chuang

Three years ago, a di­verse group of Colorado aero­space and avi­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als, lo­cal and state agen­cies, and ed­u­ca­tors learned the news: The U.S. Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion had re­jected a col­lec­tive bid to land one of six of­fi­cial test sites for com­mer­cial drone flight. Call it a turn­ing point. “In ret­ro­spect, that was a good thing. Be­cause of FAA gov­er­nance, (the win­ners) haven’t been able to grow much be­cause within those test sites they have to get ap­proval for ev­ery­thing, which takes time,” said Bill Emi­son, who at the time worked as an ac­count man­ager at Mer­rick & Com­pany’s geospa­tial divi­sion in Green­wood Vil­lage. “We did the next-best thing: We re­quested a cer­tifi­cate of op­er­a­tions to op­er­ate a test site in Colorado.”

The FAA gave its bless­ing last year, and now an 8,000-square-mile area in the San Luis Val­ley is avail­able for “medium-sized birds,” or drones weigh­ing at least 55 pounds. A high point: Drones can fly up to 15,000 feet above sea level (about 9,000 feet above the ground), a ceil­ing well above the fed­eral limit of 400 feet. Be­cause of fea­tures like that, the group — which formed the non­profit UAS Colorado — is do­ing more than just test­ing drones. It’s try­ing to at­tract more drone-re­lated com­pa­nies to Colorado.

“We’re ac­tively courting a Span­ish firm by say­ing: ‘Hey, not only do we have a great busi­ness cli­mate, but we have tons of space. We can help you iden­tify a man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity.’ What they want to do is man­u­fac­ture a bird like Boe­ing in Seat­tle and roll it on a field and fly it,” said Emi­son, who han­dles mar­ket­ing for UAS Colorado.

“We’re high al­ti­tude, and there’s not a lot of traf­fic,” he said, not­ing two top draws for com­pa­nies. “And we’re sunny.”

Colorado has em­braced drones. It has the se­cond-largest chap­ter in the Drone Rac­ing Multi GP league, which has 300 chap­ters na­tion­wide. China’s DJI, the largest maker of drones, opened its first store in Lone Tree this month. The store is one of DJI’s first in the coun­try.

And Colorado has the fifth­high­est num­ber of ex­emp­tions to an FAA rule that un­til this year al­lowed only li­censed pi­lots to op­er­ate com­mer­cial drones, ac­cord­ing to data from the As­so­ci­a­tion for Un­manned Ve­hi­cle Sys­tems In­ter­na­tional. (On Aug. 29, the FAA re­laxed the rule, re­quir­ing pro­fes­sional drone op­er­a­tors ob­tain a Re­mote Pi­lot Air­man Cer­tifi­cate, which can be earned through an on­line course.)

“There is a drone in­dus­try in Colorado, and I’ll tell you a lot of it is be­cause of the space com­mu­nity and the devel­op­ment of the CubeSat,” a minia­ture satel­lite used to col­lect data for re­search, said Jay Lin­dell, aero­space and de­fense in­dus­try cham­pion for Colorado’s Of­fice of Eco­nomic Devel­op­ment and In­ter­na­tional Trade. “This is about the data. This is about what the drone can see and col­lect and turn into real in­for­ma­tion for the busi­ness.”

Many in­dus­tries are us­ing drones or ex­plor­ing how to use them. En­ergy com­pa­nies can use drones to in­spect wind tur­bines in­stead of hav­ing a worker climb a tower. Rail lines can send a drone to cover 200 miles of tracks cheaper than send­ing a crew mem­ber in a truck or he­li­copter. En­gi­neer­ing firms can in­spect bridges, con­struc­tion com­pa­nies can track work com­pleted atop sky­scrapers. A drone can de­liver an anti-venom kit to a back­coun­try hiker bit- ten by a rat­tlesnake. Public and pri­vate users are ex­pected to elab­o­rate on po­ten­tial uses dur­ing The Rocky Moun­tain Un­manned Sym­po­sium, set for March at the Wings Over the Rock­ies Mu­seum.

The test site near Alam­osa hasn’t at­tracted the head­quar­ters of new com­pa­nies yet. But the push for more com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity sparks hope. Of­fi­cials with the San Luis Val­ley UAS Test Cen­ter said it’s ex­pect­ing to an­nounce the first new ten­ants in Fe­bru­ary. Also, a half­dozen com­pa­nies are seek­ing ap­proval to fly there in 2017.

Ref­er­ence Tech­nolo­gies in Lafayette is seen as a good ex­am­ple of what is be­ing done in Colorado.

Founder Allen Bishop started Ref­er­ence Tech­nolo­gies in 2012 and two years later re­ceived a $250,000 grant from the state’s eco­nomic devel­op­ment of­fice as part of the Ad­vanced In­dus­try Ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram.

By fo­cus­ing on larger drones — its $300,000 Hum­ming­bird drone weighs 186 pounds and can carry more than 50 pounds — Ref­er­ence Tech­nolo­gies has se­cured $20 mil­lion worth of con­tracts that re­quire it to make one un­manned air­craft per work­day next year.

“I un­der­stand that one of the rea­sons I was se­lected out of 25 com­peti­tors was the busi­ness model I was us­ing. I’m us­ing 99 per­cent of per­son­nel here in Colorado,” said Bishop, adding he con­tracts parts to 16 com­pa­nies in Colorado. “My air­craft is made from car­bon fiber, so I use Adam Air­craft in Cen­ten­nial. But the real net was em­ploy­ment. Be­cause of the vol­ume of busi­ness, all the sub­con­trac­tors I use are go­ing to have to hire peo­ple to meet the or­der I need.”

Ref­er­ence Tech­nolo­gies em­ploys five peo­ple, and its con­trac­tors em­ploy roughly an­other 20. When man­u­fac­tur­ing ramps up next year, Bishop says his con­trac­tors’ staffing will triple.

“I’ve got to pro­duce an air­craft a day. That’s go­ing to re­quire an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount of man­u­fac­tur­ing,” he said. “Adam knows they have to ex­pand. I’ve got mo­tors, pro­pel­lers and ca­bling. That’s done here in Lafayette. And that’s just my com­pany. Add in an­other 10 to 15 other com­pa­nies in my same boat who are de­vel­op­ing UAVs.”

The only thing he be­lieves that Colorado lacks is ven­ture cap­i­tal for com­mer­cial drone star­tups. He hopes the test site with an “un­heard of ” 15,000-foot flight ceil­ing in the San Luis Val­ley, plus the state’s busi­ness cli­mate, will at­tract more in­vestors.

“I was lucky. I got a grant from the state. Hav­ing been here for 40 years and be­hind two suc­cess­ful star­tups, I had a lot of con­tacts, an­gel in­vestors,” Bishop said. “But if you’re look­ing for $1 mil­lion or more for drone devel­op­ment, it’s very dif­fi­cult in Colorado.”

Christo­pher Rice ex­plains the tech­ni­cal as­pects of the QX1400 drone at the Rocky Moun­tain UAS Pro­fes­sion­als hol­i­day party at the Tivoli on the Au­raria Cam­pus. Hy­oung Chang, The Den­ver Post

The QX1400 drone is dis­played this month dur­ing the UAS Pro­fes­sion­als for the Rocky Moun­tain hol­i­day party at the Tivoli on the Au­raria Cam­pus. Hy­oung Chang, The Den­ver Post

Hy­oung Chang, The Den­ver Post

DJI, one of the big­gest brands for drones, is open­ing its first store in Colorado. The China-based com­pany al­ready sells its drones at Best Buy and Ap­ple stores.

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