If El Paso County had been able to employ an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, when the Waldo Canyon wildfire ignited in June 2012, the blaze might have been located in 30 minutes or less and a disaster might have been averted.

“The most important thing you can do to keep a small fire from becoming a big fire is fast, precise geolocation,” El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said. “In the Waldo Canyon fire, it took firefighters traveling up some valleys to locate it. It took the better part of a day.

“Had we been using an unmanned aircraft, we might have been able to precisely geolocate the fire much faster. That would have allowed us to put firefighting resources against it much faster. It’s hard to guess for sure, but we might have been able to prevent that fire from cresting over the ridge and into Colorado Springs.”

Government agencies and private-sector clients increasingly are discovering the value of drones for a range of operations from firefighting to making movies. They can save time and money, and can capture imagery that can’t be viewed any other way. And as drones grow in popularity, they’re supporting the growth of a local drone industry.

“We found 100 companies in Colorado that were unmanned aerial system manufacturers or operators,” said VanderWerf, who was the founding CEO of a nonprofit called UAS Colorado. The organization was formed to apply for a Federal Aviation Administration contract for a UAS test site.

“We did not get it, but it congealed the industry in Colorado,” he said.

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VanderWerf no longer leads that organization but now heads defense consulting firm Advanced Capitol LLC.

Drones in public sector

El Paso County now has contracts for on-call services with two unmanned aircraft companies.

“Should we have another large disaster event, unmanned aircraft can potentially be used,” VanderWerf said. “We have not used those contracts for that kind of work, but I think eventually it’ll be coming.”

Unmanned aircraft have helped with engineering analysis on the Westside Avenue Action Plan project. Drone video footage has been used to show commissioners and the public the latest status of the construction site.

“Unmanned aircraft 50 feet above the ground does that quite well,” VanderWerf said.

The WAAP project was the county’s first foray into unmanned aircraft use, he said, but drones potentially have other uses for public entities. Some jurisdictions are using them in search-and-rescue efforts and to perform building inspections.

The city of Colorado Springs uses them from time to time, Senior Engineer Ryan Phipps said.

“We’ve used them in survey applications where we can get some survey information from the air, but primarily what we use them for is for aerial photography, especially around projects or future projects,” Phipps said. “It gives us a really nice bird’s eye view ahead of time of what we’re designing. If it’s during construction, it gives us some really solid progress photos — just a different perspective from what you see from the ground.”

Phipps said an aerial camera owned by the contractor has been used to observe and document work on the Pikes Peak Avenue reconstruction project.

“Aerial imagery is what they’re best at right now,” he said. “They have the potential of being used to help us manage our assets.”

As a surveying tool, drones could be used to inventory channels and drainageways periodically and after catastrophic events such as flooding. That before-and-after data could be helpful when applying for federal grants.

Phipps said it’s likely the city will make greater use of drones in the future, but “the technology needs to grow a bit before it’s as mainstream as a lot of other surveying techniques are. If it became a mainstream form of collecting data, and it was cost effective, it’s possible the city would purchase it.”

Local police departments also are using drone technology. A drone recently made news when the Fountain Police Department used it to track a suspect inside a home.

The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is not deploying them now but recognizes their value in investigations and in pinpointing wildfires.

“We are in the phase of researching the best option to create a drone program or a regional approach with the city,” said Jacqueline Kirby, media relations manager/PIO.

Local drone industry

The drone industry as a whole is having growing pains, but several Colorado Springs companies have been employing drones to serve government entities and businesses locally, nationally and internationally.

Sanborn Map Co., one of the companies with which El Paso County contracts, uses both manned and unmanned aircraft combined with GPS and multiple sensors to provide mapping services to government and private-sector clients.

“It’s not just the drones themselves, but a combination of the drone with other equipment that allows us to do remote sensing mapping type of work,” said Jason Caldwell, Sanborn’s vice president of business development and sales.

The same optical, imagery-based or laser technology is used on manned flights and unmanned aerial systems. Drones haven’t replaced manned aircraft but can provide higher resolution and accuracy, Caldwell said.

Sanborn caters to a wide range of industries, including the energy sector, utilities, agriculture and transportation.

It has a contract with Colorado Springs Utilities to do “an asset model of their electrical transmission assets,” Caldwell said.

In verticals such as agriculture, “the business model has to support it,” he said. “Depending on the crop, the yields and the amount of profit, these types of technologies can work or in some cases can’t because of the cost factor.”

It’s rare for a commercial-level consumer to employ drones for a one-off project such as surveying a home’s roof, but developers and engineers can make use of the technology.

Overall in the drone industry, “there has been a fairly large transition in the last two years of mergers and acquisitions,” Caldwell said. “I would see this industry, as far as the actual hardware as well as the data processing, still being in its infancy, I think there’s a long way to go in terms of what the potential is going to be.”

The industry’s growth has been restricted by Federal Aviation Administration limitations, evolving regulations and privacy concerns.

“A lot of people see them as a way to spy on them, but the focus that we’ve seen in terms of government use on the civilian side has been for more purposeful applications,” Caldwell said. “We were very excited to see how progressive [El Paso County was] to put together a contract for their government needs.”

Dynamic Aerospace Technologies employs drones to provide other types of services to a roster of local, national and international clients.

“Our softer side is multimedia,” said Sergio Paula, director of operations. “We do anything from filming commercials to movies. … Our drones are able to capture aerial views, ground views, certain shots that can’t be done by using handheld cameras. They capture beautiful, dynamic images to incorporate into the videos and commercials that we do.”

The company has created commercials for Napa Auto Parts and Comcast, shot B roll for Lion Television, and served as aerial and ground media provider for Pikes Peak International Raceway.

“We’re working with [VisitCOS] about how they can better market Colorado Springs and what it’s like to come here,” Paula said.

The company also provides data services including mapping, surveying and point cloud systems that create maps for one to 70,000 acres.

For construction clients, the company can shoot at night to provide security and surveillance. Its drones can fly under bridges and to the tops of tall buildings to do close-up inspections, and it can produce time-lapse photography and highly accurate 3D models.

“With infrared technology, we are now able to do search-and-rescue and find hot spots and heat loss on buildings,” Paula said.

Dynamic Aerospace was not one of the companies that won a contract with El Paso County, but it works with other government entities and has been in talks with agencies including the Teller County Fire Department.

Companies or agencies that are considering purchasing drones versus hiring a company to deploy them should be aware that these machines are more than toys, Paula said. He recommends consulting with a drone company to help weigh the costs and benefits of adding a drone or two.

“Insurance, licensing and privacy laws all come into play,” he said. “You need to get a pilot’s license in order to fly. It’s a really big step.”