by Sandia Belgrade

The University of Colorado says it will help test two kinds of drones in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley. The FAA has approved the launching and testing of unmanned aircraft by the University of Colorado and the nonprofit aerospace advocacy group UAS Colorado located in Boulder. Most significant, in a highly competitive process, is that the main operations hub for the launch and testing will be Leach Airport in Center with participation by other airports across the valley. As an approved flight test site for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly called drones, Leach will be the focus of this collaborative effort involving the six counties in the valley, the University of Colorado and UAS Colorado.

Through the FAA-issued Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA), the team can operate two types of UAS. One is a 120-pound vertical takeoff craft known as the Reference Technologies Hummingbird and a smaller, battery-powered UAS that is being developed jointly by Black Swift Technologies and Swift Engineering which can be hand-launched with a payload of up to 8 pounds. Reference Technologies Inc. is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado. Black Swift Technologies is headquartered in Boulder. The valley is ideally located for the drones which are cleared to fly in an 8,000-square-mile test site airspace with heights up to 15,000 feet. The drones will be run through endurance, ease-of-operation and

instrument performance tests to evaluate their potential commercial applications, according to CU aerospace engineering sciences professor Brian Argrow. “It’s a high valley, surrounded by high mountains, so there’s all sorts of terrain for testing,” Argrow said. “For example, you might want to do search and rescue in the mountains, so you want to make sure you have a UAS that will perform at a high altitude.

Commercial applications

The group is apparently interested in developing commercial uses of UAVs, not military ones.  Projects range from crop dusting, monitoring power lines, pipeline inspections, fire fighting support and other uses relevant to the valley. The technology could have far-reaching applications such as drought assessment and flood forecasting to water conservation, as well as emergency search and rescue operations, agricultural uses, and mapping landfills. Argrow believes UAS have the potential to be used for a wide variety of projects ranging from crop and drought monitoring and power line and pipeline inspection to firefighting support and airborne delivery activities.” These are sensible, even valuable applications, but how does the county get word out to those who could use drones for commercial services?

UAS Colorado CEO Constantin Diehl addresses commissioners 

At the first meeting in November Mike Spearman was accompanied by UAS Colorado CEO Diehl. He is the one who formally submitted the two COA applications requesting the San Luis Valley airspace. Diehl spoke at length and offered valuable advice and direction to the commissioners. According to Diehl “the FAA decision to allow the testing of UAS aircraft in the San Luis Valley is a big step forward in keeping Colorado at the forefront in the development and testing of these aircraft.” UAS Colorado represents a statewide business league of more than 100 industry, research and economic development stakeholders dedicated to preserving Colorado’s leading role in the UAS aerospace industry. Diehl also is the CEO of Rocky Mountain UAS, created in 2013 to partner with CU-Boulder on research efforts. He discussed some of the next steps needed: setting up a basic agreement between Alamosa and Saguache counties on day-to-day operations, getting a Rocky Mountain operations agreement, and participating in setting up a valley-wide advisory board. There will also need to be an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Alamosa. Perhaps with Boulder too. The IGA will be the operative portion under the COA. Spearman said the IGA could be simple but necessary to set up a line of communication for things to run smoothly. There is a requirement that the airport manager be notified before any flights. The commissioners need to determine procedures and specifics to be spelled out.

Infrastructure & many details to be worked out

The County needs to set a landing fee and determine a reasonable fee structure and determine who is going to be the contact person: will Mike Spearman be the one available on a day-to-day basis for point of contact? They need to assign an airport manager who will take care of specific activities. Spearman noted, “We’ll learn as we go.” There are a lot of nitty-gritty details that must be tended to before the first test flight on December 7. The infrastructure still needs work, including getting an operative well. There’s a need to fix up the lounge, fix old hangars and provide a clean, secure space—perhaps another hangar. They must determine what those doing the testing will pay for lockable hangars. Determine and set up a reasonable fee structure, including a basic charge for facilities, a landing fee, etc.  And it was mentioned the personnel will return to Alamosa every night—sad to think the county doesn’t have a decent motel for them to stay at and keep money in the county. All in all there are many managerial, communication and infrastructure details to be ironed out.

Key players

Mike Spearman has lived up to his name. The former Saguache County Commissioner has spearheaded the push for Leach Airport in Center to be the primary operations hub for UAS testing in the valley. He wants to be compensated only for expenses and not all the hours he has put in. With the economic potential for the county, it is good to note that all of Spearman’s activities have been on a voluntarily basis, because as he said, he “loves the county.”

Francis Song 

Francis Song, the Alamosa Airport Manager, was also in attendance. Alamosa is the sole signaturee on COA.  Song more than anyone present understands managing an airport. There’s an SLV county meeting to develop the UAS advisory board December 11. Song noted that UAS valley advisory committee as it is proposed is incomplete and nebulous right now, only a template for the six counties in the valley. The advisory board will be comprised of two people from each county. This board will channel concerns and hammer out details such as establishing no fly zones, 48 hour notice of test operations, and who controls what.

A coup for the valley, but now . . .

Landing the flight test site was a coup, but the intention of the BOCC to use the airport as a revenue-producing venture requires them to take action. Until the FAA approval, the commissioners were in a wait-and-see mode. Diehl suggested to the commissioners that they put a plan together. Blow our horn. Spend the next 6 months doing active marketing, internationally as well as regionally. Use promotions to illustrate specific ideas and define benefits, perhaps a promotional video or website. Tailor test operations to a company’s needs. We need a fast process to move forward, identify and find money to do this. Ken Anderson said we need to jump out and promote—maybe hire someone to make contacts. But as of the last meeting on November 17, the BOCC has not reported that any promotional actions have been taken. It was said that they need to get into marketing mode to attract the target aeronautics industry to come and use this valley. They’ll have to define the benefits for them, tailor test operations to meet commercial needs. Two weeks later the BOCC seems not to have made much progress on that front, and December 7 is approaching the runway.