It’s the Wild West for drones in Colorado, but experts are drafting guidelines for the revolutionary aircraft

The distress call went out at 4:15 p.m. Two hikers and a dog got lost in the woods after mistakenly straying from a trail near Devil’s Head, a mountain summit in the Rampart Range 40 miles south of Denver.

Just two years ago, locating the lost hikers might have taken all night, according to Morris Hansen, vice president of the Douglas County Search and Rescue team, which responded to the call.

This time, search-and-rescue officials needed just two hours.

The difference was an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, which saved the crew hours of foot-hunting and hundreds of dollars on expensive search-and-rescue efforts.

Ten years ago, everyday use of civilian drones sounded more like science-fiction than social policy. Today, falling costs and improving technologies have helped launch the aviation vehicles in the public sector, where UAVs are used for everything from surveying and mapping to search and rescue, and from law enforcement to fighting wildfires.

Still, despite growing recognition of the technology’s potential, many civic entities such as the Douglas County Search and Rescue team have never received formal UAV training from a public agency. Instead, Hansen, a drone recreationalist who spearheaded Douglas County Search and Rescue’s UAV implementation, has been applying lessons from his private hobby for the public good.

“Firsthand knowledge on using drones is the biggest gap that exists today,” he said. “Putting the thing up in the air doesn’t solve all of the problems. You have to know when to put it up there, what you’re doing up there, what camera to use up there and how to be safe.”

Although the nascent technology could save lives, time and taxpayer dollars, drones have only begun to achieve liftoff in Colorado’s public sector.

In June, state legislators passed House Bill 1070, which tasked a subdivision of the Colorado Department of Public Safety — the Center for Excellence — with conducting a study on how to integrate unmanned aircraft systems in public agencies, from firefighting and search and rescue to accident reconstruction and emergency management.

The bill — which also stipulated that the study consider privacy concerns, costs and timeliness of deployment — aims to help steer public agencies toward best practices.

“We want to get to the nuts and bolts of what works in an unbiased way,” said Bob Gann, who holds a doctorate in electrical engineering and serves as the center’s deputy director. “We evaluate systems and platforms and give others the tools and recommendations to implement their program.”

Absent clear guidelines and overhead support or funding, many public agencies looking to implement unmanned aviation systems have faced early problems obtaining drones, training and licensing. (The Center for Excellence relies on gifts, grants and private donations; HB 1070 provided no funding.) Such barriers can cost agencies thousands of dollars and drain dozens of hours.

“It’s a little bit of the Wild West in terms of UAVs,” Gann said. “We’re really in the early stages of people using them in a programmatic way. We’re trying to get away from everybody doing their own thing to a more pragmatic approach that agencies can follow.”

Rapid technological change has hastened the confusion. What cost $100,000 just a few years ago now costs $10,000, Gann said. Although falling costs can make drones more accessible for cash-strapped agencies, technical proficiency hasn’t kept pace. “There’s a lot of diversity in terms of what to do, and even more uncertainty about how to do it,” Gann said.

Guidelines could help agencies navigate the murky terrain and provide needed assistance on implementation and use.

Last year, the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees drone use and regulations in the United States, implemented separate rules for recreationalists and professional flyers in the private and public sectors. The FAA estimates that regulations could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs within a decade, as drone shipments quadruple over the next four years.

That excites technologists, who see a budding Colorado industry on the verge of a boom. In April, Denver will host AUVSI Xponential, the largest trade show for unmanned systems and robotics in the United States. The four-day event will feature more than 650 manufacturers, 200 panels led by industry experts, and a litany of Colorado-based companies and enthusiasts eager to show off the state of the technology in the Rocky Mountain region.

“In Colorado, it all comes from our space-related business,” says Jay Lindell, an aerospace and defense industry champion at the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. “We’ve got the right industry sector. It’s slow developing, but more and more public agencies are using drones.”

Unauthorized drones, however, can create problems. So far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, 14 aerial firefighting operations have been grounded due to the crash risk posed by illegally deployed UAVs.

Drones have also received widespread skepticism largely due to concerns over privacy and technological unemployment. Polling suggests that about two-thirds of Americans share some level of apprehension over the technology, while three-quarters support regulations. Civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have worried that, without proper regulation, unmanned vehicles could “cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights” via facial recognition software, infrared technology and hidden recording devices.

Such concerns came to a head three years ago in Arapahoe County when the tiny town of Deer Trail gained national attention after residents considered an anti-surveillance measure that would have allowed license-holders to shoot down drones.The measure ultimately failed.

Jeff Cozart, the CEO of Juniper Unmanned, an unmanned aircraft systems consultancy based in Golden that contracts work with the state of Colorado on land mapping and surveying, doesn’t see drones as a threat to human workers.

“It’s a rational fear, but the reality is that drones will add many more jobs,” he said. “For the most part, what we’re doing is force multiplying. Most of the applications that we have, we’re not replacing people, but we’re making them more effective at their jobs.”

From policing to agriculture, where 80 percent of all commercial-drone activity may take place, many Coloradans hope a future marked by greater efficiency does not come at the expense of employment or privacy.

Gann understands the concerns but says technological limitations prevent drones from serving as effective stores of private information.

“On a law enforcement side, people need to understand that these devices are not really that good without direction,” he said. “They don’t fly that long or go that far. They fly for 15 to 20 minutes. You just can’t use that thing to go out and search for random things or spy on people.”

Coloradans, he said, usually come around to embracing the technology after public agents have addressed their worries with transparency and clear intent.

Still, adoption and acceptance will require patience from the public as increased exposure deflates the mythic expectations and fears surrounding drones.

“Drones aren’t a silver bullet,” Hansen said. “But they’re another tool for search and rescue to do our job.”

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