When most people think about unmanned aerial vehicles, they think of a Predator drone, sneaking up on some unsuspecting terrorist in a dusty faraway country.
But there are other kinds of UAVs, and they are quickly finding their way into domestic airspace — doing tasks such as mapping, crop-dusting, providing surveillance for law enforcement and monitoring wildfires.
The UAV industry is poised to create 2,000 jobs in Colorado by 2025, and will have a $232 million economic impact from 2015 to 2017, according to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Nationally, the economic impact could be $13.6 billion in the first three years of full integration and is anticipated to grow to $82.1 billion annually between 2015 and 2025.
So far, issues of privacy and perception have clouded the forecast for UAVs in the United States — and the industry has to rise above those obstacles before it can really take off.
“We’re losing billions in economic impact,” said Michael Toscano, president and CEO of AUVSI. “This is a commodity that allows men and women to do jobs they already do more efficiently and more economically. This isn’t a leap in technology — we’re using things we already have.”
Toscano was in town last week to discuss UAVs at the 29th National Space Symposium at The Broadmoor.
He spoke with a variety of industry and government leaders about the benefits of using UAVs in domestic airspace.
Colorado’s leaders are embracing the technology, putting in a statewide bid to become one of six national testing sites for UAVs. The Federal Aviation Administration plans to name the six sites by the end of the year.
“They have 50 applications from about 37 states,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what will happen. The federal government isn’t putting any money onto this.
“The certified sites have to pay for the testing themselves — but it can be a big boon to the states that get it. It makes good sense to get involved now, because this is going to be a tool used in the future.”
But Toscano still has to spend a lot of time clearing up misconceptions about the UAVs.
These aren’t giant, militarized planes. Instead, the smallest weigh only about 4 pounds. They don’t carry weapons; instead, they carry cameras, sensors and other equipment.
And they are limited: Most can only fly 30 minutes to an hour and cover about 1,000 acres. They go no higher than 400 feet off the ground and don’t interfere with commercial flight.
“Imagine the agricultural uses,” Toscano said. “A UAV could not only spray crops with pesticides, it could tell exactly which parts of a field need the pesticide, and which don’t. It could tell by smell and color which parts of a crop were ready first.”
He says the Forest Service could have used UAVs last year to fight the Waldo Canyon fire.
Toscano says UAVs flying at night with infrared cameras could direct fire crews to hot spots, possibly controlling the fire earlier and easing its path of destruction. They can also carry fire retardants into places that manned planes or fire crews can’t go.
Colorado happens to be home to one of the only law enforcement UAVs in the country.
Mesa County Sheriff Ben Miller uses UAVs routinely in his job. He testified before Congress last month about the benefits of UAVs.
“They have to check the level of their landfill every year,” Toscano said. “And it’s a process that normally costs $10,000 to contract with a company. With his UAV, he did it for $200.”
Mesa County uses Falcon UAVs, an unmanned vehicle built in Aurora. The company is owned by Chris Miser, a former member of the Air Force who previously helped create and design military UAVs.
The Falcon weighs about 10 pounds and can fit in a car trunk. The initial investment — about $20,000 — is around what a company might pay for a car, he says.
The dividends are much higher. But first, the state must pass laws allowing wider use of UAVs, which hasn’t happened yet.
“Right now, we’re not getting a lot of interest inside Colorado itself,” Miser said. “The regulatory environment is a hindrance. But we’re going forward, going to keep at this because we’re confident that the market is going to change.”
The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the groups wary about the surveillance capabilities of the unmanned aircraft.
The ACLU has said the nation must work to prevent itself from becoming a “surveillance society.”
“Routine aerial surveillance would profoundly change the character of public life in America,” the ACLU says on its website. “Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a surveillance society.”
The ACLU says the UAVs should never contain weapons and should be audited for misuse. The organization also would like to see rules about erasing unnecessary images and only allowing law enforcement agencies to use them with a warrant.
All it takes is a change in the perception of the industry, Miser says, and then the winds of fortune will blow for the UAV industry.
“When they find out what it can do, at what cost, that’s really the key to changing people’s minds,” he said.
“It’s a no-brainer.”
By the numbers
$82.1 billion: National economic impact of UAVs by 2025
$1.3 billion: Colorado economic impact of UAVs by 2025
103,776: National jobs created by 2025
18,161: Colorado jobs created by 2025
$40,000: Average salary for manufacturing jobs created by UAVs
$482 million: Tax revenue to all 50 states by 2025
(Source: Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International)