With Jeff Bezos’ announcement this week that online retailer Amazon.com is developing an unmanned-shipping service to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less, it’s apparent that the world has entered a new era of aviation technology — a world in which Colorado has potential to play a key role.
Earlier this year, a team of aerospace-enthusiastic entities led by the University of Colorado-Boulder submitted a proposal to the Federal Aviation Administration to designate Colorado as one of six states to house test sites for Unmanned Aerial Systems, otherwise known as UAVs or, more popularly, drones.
The FAA application was handled by Colorado UAS, a team comprised of 10 regional economic development agencies, seven universities, five industry associations, two state agencies and more than 100 area companies.
“I would venture to say that most of the aerospace companies in Colorado Springs have systems that would benefit from this move toward UAVs,” said Sean McClung, chairman of the Colorado UAS Board of Directors. “There are significant benefits for all of those companies.”
The FAA’s selection is scheduled to be announced by the close of 2013, little more than three weeks away, and industry experts say Colorado fares well in competing to become what one Washington Post reporter referred to as the “Silicon Valley of Drones.”
By the May 6 submission deadline, the FAA had received 50 applications from 37 states. Now, the number of eligible applicants has been whittled down to 25 applications from 24 states — giving the state a 25 percent chance of snagging one of those six spots.
“We probably have the most flight hours in the country for UAVs than any other state, so I think we are in a very good position to accept an award,” McClung said. “The establishment of a test area is something that gives a stamp of approval from the FAA that says, ‘You can go and do this.’ ”
Of the state’s 14 proposed ranges for testing — 12 air and two ground — three are in the Colorado Springs area: Colorado Springs East Airport, just off Colorado Highway 94 near Ellicott; the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Fort Carson.
A study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that Colorado could experience the creation of nearly 1,200 jobs in the first three years of national airspace integration, along with an economic impact of $232 million, 1,760 jobs and $1.4 billion in the decade following.
“It would be a huge impact on the state in general, but especially the Springs,” said Andy Merritt, chief defense industry officer for the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.
In addition to economics, McClung said that the potential benefits would be crosscutting: There would be potential perks and/or practical applications for first responders, the media, education, manufacturing, composite production, information technology, agriculture and environmental research.
“Collectively, Colorado’s 14 test sites provide a wide variety of national airspace integration and follow-on research-specific research environments,” according to McClung. “Our ranges offer remote and lightly populated locations for ground and pattern operations … and an exceptionally large variety of environmental conditions.”
The FAA’s charge to develop the program, which will serve to integrate UAS into the national airspace by 2015, was spurred by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The congressional mandate established criteria pertaining to “geographic and climatic diversity” that the FAA must consider, in which Colorado fares well but is not perfect.
“The FAA had a number of criteria that were to be used in assessing the value of a test area, and Colorado meets all of them except one,” said McClung, who explained that the state failed to meet the maritime qualification.
But aside from not having a seaside locale, Colorado is an extremely diverse and therefore attractive state both geographically and climatically: mountains, desert, plains and forest with rain, sleet, snow and sunshine. Even after those criteria are considered, Colorado also boasts an advanced aerospace industry and one of the most active test areas in the country with ranges and research at CU-Boulder, plus a number of military facilities statewide and in the Springs.
“We have a more diverse offering than perhaps any other state because we approached it as a consortium with several different sites,” McClung said. “Our proposal is very strong and we are in a very strong position to execute.”
Fire and rain
Perhaps the most obvious benefit for Colorado relates to fire and flood mitigation, as well as subsequent rescue efforts.
McClung explained that damage caused by natural disasters such as the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires, and statewide flooding that occurred along the Front Range in early September, could be lessened through the use of UAS technology.
“That is the benefit that I see for the Springs area — minimization of natural disasters and of the economic impact they cause,” he said.
For example, Mesa County (the Grand Junction area) spends around $10,000 each year on a manned aerial survey of landfills to determine increase in waste, while the Mesa County Sheriff’s office used a small UAS to serve the same function for $200. Unmanned aircraft also have the capability to cover several times the area in less time than by traditional means, due to issues of weight, which translate to better speed and fuel efficiency.
The use of drones also means decreased risk for emergency-response personnel, who currently fly into potentially life-threatening situations.
“You don’t have to have pilots flying in areas that are dangerous — in smoke or low altitude during a fire,” McClung said. “I think if we had a fleet of UAVs, we could have gotten to it a lot more quickly, and maybe minimized the damage.”
Perhaps the biggest concern related to the production, testing and application of UAVs is the potential implications some say it raises in regard to privacy, security and public safety in the U.S.
“We have to be sure the benefits of UAVs are publicized and understood and pay attention to the concerns of people who are worried about their privacy,” McClung said.
Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a supporter of responsible development, testing and use of UAS technology, introduced the Safeguarding Privacy and Fostering Aerospace Innovation Act to Congress in May. The bill serves to ensure the protection of Americans’ privacy rights and federal regulations pertaining to such technology, according to a Dec. 2 news release from Udall’s office. The bill would tighten restrictions on individual and commercial surveillance on U.S. citizens and require all UAVs to be clearly marked with the name, address and telephone number of the owner.
In the release, Udall referenced the issue raised by online-retail mogul Bezos:
“Amazon’s experimental drone delivery system is just the latest example of how unmanned aerial systems have the potential to change everything from retail shipping to search and rescue missions,” Udall said. “As more businesses embrace this innovative and job-creating technology, we must ensure that our laws and regulations keep pace. Coloradans will accept this technology only if they are certain their privacy is protected and that Americans won’t be victims of surveillance or privacy abuse by private unmanned aerial system operators.”
But even if such a bill does not pass in Congress, there are privacy safeguards, federal regulations and constitutional rights to buffer misuse by operators, who FAA regulations dictate are responsible for lawful/respectful use of the aircraft.
McClung said that although the depiction of drones in the media — military operations and intelligence gathering — has fueled mistrust and misunderstanding that is perhaps beyond what is ration-al, it is vital to treat the topic tastefully.
But in the end, enthusiasts such as him see the benefits of such technology greatly outweighing tentative[potential ?] abuse.
“Safely integrating routine uses of UAS into the airspace is the No. 1 priority of this effort,” he said. “That includes the safety of people on the ground as well as in the air. … Accomplishing this deliberately and sensibly in order to reap the economic benefits while protecting the safety and privacy of people is our ultimate goal.”
The following is a list of companies either based or located in Colorado Springs that are in direct support of Colorado’s application to the FAA seeking designation as one of six UAS test sites in the U.S., according to Sean McClung, chairman of the Colorado UAS Board of Directors. Although this list does not include all Colorado Springs companies in support of the FAA award, McClung said “it illustrates that there are very few industries and companies in the Colorado Springs area that will not positively benefit by the presence of [unattended aircraft systems].”
■ Advanced Capitol LLC
■ BOSH Global Services Inc.
■ CBRE Inc. – Global Corporate Services
■ Colorado Lending Source
■ Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance
■ Craters & Freighters
■ DSoft Technology Inc.
■ Exelis Inc.
■ Holland & Hart LLP
■ Imprimis Inc.
■ Infinity Systems Engineering LLC
■ Integrity Applications Incorporated
■ Issac Corporation
■ Kratos Defense & Security Systems Inc.
■ Millennium Engineering and Integration Company
■ Modern Technology Solutions Inc.
■ NAVSYS Corporation
■ Net-Centric Design Professionals LLC
■ Raytheon Company
■ Sherman and Howard LLC
■ Space Infrastructure Foundation Inc.
■ SPIRE EMS Inc.
■ Springs East Airport
■ UAS Solutions LLC
■ UMS3 LLC
■ Webster University