Members of the Chaffee County Unmanned Aircraft Systems advisory board, now focused on drone testing, believe the time has come to tout the opportunities UAS technology is bringing to the Arkansas River valley. Over the past three years, Chaffee County has quietly moved to the leading edge of this technology, becoming the United States’ high-altitude testing area for UAS technology, more commonly known as drones.
“When you fly a drone, it’s an airspace issue. Once a drone gets off the ground, it’s in airspace, and there are a lot of safeguards that people should know about,” said UAS board member Dennis Heap during a presentation to the Buena Vista town board. “First, you need a remote pilot license and to become part of the community program. We’re talking about small UAS vehicles under 55 pounds. Licensed operators have to keep the UAS in what is called ‘line of sight’ at all times, and you can’t interfere with manned aircraft. If you’re within five miles of an airport, you have to notify the airport.”
The public is gradually becoming aware of the many uses for UAS technology, in which governments and commercial business have already been exploring and investing. “There are critical uses for this technology – firefighting, emergency rescues, law enforcement, checking crop irrigation coverage, surveying forest health,” said Heap. “In June of 2015, the county got approval for two certificates of authorization related to the geographical area for drones; we have one for Salida and one for Buena Vista. Once we had that, then Chaffee County commissioners set up the UAS advisory board.”
While recent UAS efforts have focused attention on commercial use and governmental applications at conferences at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort, private drones use has increased across the nation and in Colorado. In fact the uptick of private drones prompted at least two metro-Denver suburbs, Cherry Hills Village and Greenwood Village, to pass regulations for private drone usage in their residential areas.
Heap also discussed standards some municipalities and counties have adopted regarding drones, and general standards expected of operators. “Operators can’t fly over sensitive areas or private property. You don’t conduct surveillance or take photos where there is an expectation of privacy,” said Heap. “Invasion of privacy is huge, and right now there are no local laws for the guidelines.”
During a July meeting, Buena Vista Town Administrator Phillip Puckett said Buena Vista is seeing more drone activity. “Search and Rescue is using them more. We’re seeing positive impacts, and private companies are using them. That said, we’re also getting more questions from folks about regulations, asking who’s in charge of regulating them.”
The short answer, says Heap, is that regulations are recommended by the Chaffee County Unmanned Aircraft Development advisory board, which includes members from across the county, including County Commissioner Keith Baker representing elected officials. The board takes advice from the Central Colorado UAS club, although legal regulations could be set by the individual municipalities or Chaffee County.
“The UAS club grew out of our need to educate the public,” said Heap. “It includes not just enthusiasts, but most of the members hold Federal Aviation Administration licenses of some sort. This group has worked really hard to organize UAS round-ups in this county. We’ve had six conferences and 500 people attend from all over the country. Last spring, in conjunction with an international conference in Denver, Chaffee County was chosen as the demo county to showcase the drones for the international audience.”
Along with commercial use, Chaffee County is home to another national first – Salida High School is the first school in the country to integrate students into drone technology, creating an entire engineering class where students build a drone, learn to fly it and complete coursework to take the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Part 107 exam.
The UAS advisory group is investigating an arrangement with Colorado Mountain College to set up a local location to take the Part 107 drone license test, increasing opportunities for local pilots. “Right now, operators have to go to Grand Junction or Denver for testing,” said Buena Vista Mayor Duff Lacy. “Getting a local testing site would be a grand step.”
Lacy said the five-mile radius practically ensures that drones won’t fly in town without the operator notifying the airport. “If you have a license and a certification, then they know you. We need to avoid what happened when the fire crews were working out of the (ANEM) airport. I did see that when they were fighting fires, they had to stop manned planes due to drones coming too near the airport.”
“Many contacts – state, federal and public entities; Black Hawk and Department of Defense – are working on how to work out airspace integration, how to ID bad drones and good drones,” said Heap. “Both county boards – the UAS advisory board and the club – include lots of professional people, and the takeaway is there are lots of eyes watching and working on things with drones.”
“We’re trying to develop a community ombudsman position who can take a report about operators not following safe practices,” said UAS club member Patty Arthur, adding the UAS Club is focused on public education.”We’d like to educate operators not to do this.”