Despite concerns, Mesa County wants to become one of Colo.’s drone zones
GRAND JUNCTION — More than a dozen sites across Colorado are competing to become drone test zones, despite strong privacy concerns by some in the state over the unmanned aircraft.
A group of industries, universities and sheriffs picked Mesa County to show off their latest unmanned surveillance vehicles Friday, but it’s only one of 14 proposed test ranges in the state that include airspace close to Front Range airports and even some private ranches.
“We really won’t be talking about the public safety piece of this. We’re looking at this from an economic impact perspective,” said Mesa County Sheriff’s Office program director Ben Miller.
The test zones will have to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates aircraft and airspace across the nation.
The FAA has said it will approve six test site applications nationally. More than 20 states, including Colorado, are in the running for a site as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which requires that the agency begin phasing in drones for mapping, surveillance and other uses.
Many in Colorado remain opposed to drones, and efforts in one Front Range community to issue drone-hunting licenses have received national attention in recent months.
Deer Trail residents will vote Oct. 8 on whether to issue permits to shoot down government drones over the tiny town. The initiative’s architect insists it’s a symbolic stand against government surveillance.
The FAA site selections are expected to be announced in December.
Colorado’s test site application includes more than 35,000 square miles of airspace, including Mesa County, according to Stan VanderWerf, executive director of the Colorado unmanned aircraft system team.
“We have the intention of trying to operate whether we win a test site or not,” VanderWerf said.
Chris Miser, owner of Denver-based Falcon UAV, sold one of his 9-pound, carbon fiber and aluminum Falcon fixed-wing units to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in 2011.
Miser, a former U.S. Air Force captain who worked on the technology for the military in Iraq during the war, started his business in 2007 because he saw the potential.
He said the biggest issue facing the new industry is public opposition to use of the new technology.
“Business is slow because everyone has this bad perception that (UAS) are nothing but bad, evil, killing, spying machines, and we’ve got to change people’s perception,” Miser said.
“I don’t do any business with the government specifically for that reason. Our focus is 100 percent doing civil applications. We don’t have any federal customers, nor do we intend to focus on federal customers,” he said. “The civil industries are the ones who are going to be able to capitalize on this and take the best benefits from it.”
That includes such things as oil and gas development, pipeline monitoring and agricultural uses.
VanderWerf even sees business opportunities for the town of Deer Trail. Federal authorities have warned against taking shots at the unmanned aircraft, saying it’s dangerous and unnecessary. VanderWerf said they could buy their own drones to shoot down.
“There are companies that are building small (drones) which behave like certain birds for the purpose of shooting them down … training for sport hunters,” VanderWerf said. “I’d hope Deer Trail would go find companies building them and bring them out to a skeet shooting range there.”
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