Drone testing may come to Rifle airport | PostIndependent.com

Drone testing may come to Rifle airport

The aerial firefighting center at the Rifle Garfield County Airport may expand into drone research under a bill working its way through the Colorado Legislature.

House Bill 17-1070, which calls for the study of potential drone uses by public agencies, recently passed the Colorado Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy committee unanimously.

If it were to pass, which may take a while as amendments will require it go back to the house, it would make the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting the pilot program to test and research a variety of different drones during certain public safety incidents.

"We want to figure out how local agencies can or cannot use unmanned aircrafts in different situations and settings," said Melissa Lineberger, Director of the Center of Excellence.

Formed in 2014, the quasi-independent research center started as a way to evaluate the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of the state firefighting program. The center's role includes looking at new technologies and new tactics firefighters can use when dealing with wildfires. As such, drones are a perfect fit for their research.

Lineberger said that because it is such a hot topic the CoE started looking at UAS for aerial wildfire training as early as August 2014.

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Sponsored by Rep. James Wilson, R-Salida, and Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, the bill requires the center to "conduct a study concerning the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) within state and local government operations that relate to public safety." The study must identify the most feasible and readily available ways to integrate the technology within local and state government functions relating to public safety and include consideration of privacy concerns, costs and timeliness of deployment.

It would require the center to set up and train a team of drone operators who would respond to public safety missions. The center ultimately would publish a study with recommendations formed through the pilot program with a cost-benefit of acquiring different drones for different purposes.

A survey by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control listed wildland fire situational awareness, search and rescue, and wildfire suppression among the biggest interests for drone application. Survey respondents also listed federal regulations and cost or lack of funding as the biggest barriers preventing them from using drones in the field.

Lineberger said that consumer-grade drones can cost around $1,500, but commercial drones can cost as much as $100,000. It will be the center's job to determine what type of drone should be used in different situations, if at all.

"Our goal will be to buy a variety of UAS and to see if they are worth the price tag," Lineberger said. "We'll determine what platform is right for what missions."

While the bill has a long way to go before becoming law, through several House votes and one Senate vote it has received little opposition.

The pilot program would allow the center to hire four temporary staffers, purchase a variety of drone platforms and payloads, and acquire a vehicle to support the effort, according to Lineberger.

"I'm very excited about this bill," said Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale. "It really shows confidence in the CoE. Melissa has done a terrific job to make the Center of Excellence for the entire state. I just think it's going to be great for Rifle."