HIGH ON POTENTIAL
Colorado commercial drones ready to take o≠
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
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.