Colorado companies help to propel fledgling drone industry forward

LONGMONT — When it comes to the drone industry, Colorado is a leading state for operators per capita.

Before the Federal Aviation Administration authorized the commercial use of drones, operators had to get an exemption to fly commercially. Colorado had more of those than any state in the country, said Jay Lindell, an aerospace champion at the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade, and moderator at Longmont Startup Week’s panel on the state of drones in Colorado.

Lindell added that Colorado is one of 11 states that have enacted no laws regulating the operations of unmanned aerial systems, instead opting to support the growing business sector.

Despite Colorado’s acceptance and openness to drones, the fledgling industry is still very much in its early days and therefore faces challenges.

One of those biggest challenges can be the lack of federal regulatory framework. Right now, there are no mandates on the type of testing required for drones, said Constantin Diehl, president and CEO of UAS Colorado, which lobbies on behalf of the industry.

Many companies building hardware for drones are small and don’t have the resources to pay for testing. Many companies rely on simulations. But Diehl said to follow best practices today, there is a component of testing and complying. And Colorado  is poised to be the ideal location to conduct tests.

“What better than an environment where you can have high altitudes, low temperatures, difficult terrain,” Diehl said.  

He added that he expects testing regulations to come down in the next few years, although the timeframe is uncertain.

Another challenge to drones can be security.

Hacking, either communications or a drone’s GPS system, is a concern to Jack Elston, CEO of drone company Black Swift Technologies.

“If there’s a need of security, there are very secure radio systems that can be used,” Elston said. “But there are boxes you can put on the side of your house to make a drone land. GPS jamming and spoofing is a concern, because the primary way of knowing where drones are is through GPS. There are people who try to intentionally interfere with the aircraft.”

Even corporate espionage can be a concern, he added. Drones collect data on their flight patterns and information they collect, and it can be a concern if that information is actually being uploaded to the company where it’s intended to go.

With the challenges, there are companies that are working to combat it. DJI has a huge market saturation in small, amateur-pilot drones. To prevent interfering with commercial flight patterns — especially with manned aircraft — DJI drones are adding algorithms that keep them from flying within airport zones, said Skip Miller, founder and CEO of UASUSA. That technology will be extremely useful, as the popularity of drones continues to grow.

Ultimately, drones can be incredibly useful, especially in a state such as Colorado. Allen Bishop, CEO and president of Reference Technologies Inc., is donating one of his large fixed-wing aircraft to Boulder County to be used for constant 360-degree visuals during the fire season.

Bishop said his drones have been used in search and recoveries for backpackers and in vehicle extractions in reservoirs.

“Next year, we’re going to have someone who is bitten by a snake that is off the grid in the middle of nowhere, where we can’t get a chopper out. We’ll be able to run a drone to Boulder hospital, but a snakebite package together and drop it to the hiker from a drone using their GPS coordinates from their call,” Bishop said. “That’s next year, absolutely. It’s already happening in other places.”

As the industry is continuing to evolve, drone operators and manufacturers are looking forward to technology evolving with it. Bishop said he’s expecting longer-lasting lithium batteries and lightweight fuel cells to come online in the near future, allowing for longer flight times. Machine learning on drones is another future event that is expected.

But the biggest thing panelists wanted to touch on was how new the industry still is.

“What’s interesting is three out of four of these panelists are inventors,” Miller said. “It’s interesting that we forget that part. All of the industry is not figured out. On a daily basis, new things appear. We’re at the start of this.”