Mesa County a drone zone?

092713_1a_droneThe sign off the shoulder of Interstate 70 entering Mesa County reading “Monuments, Mesas and Memories” may need updating.

“More drones,” maybe?

That’s because a Colorado team pushing for unmanned aircraft development has included Mesa County as one of 14 proposed test ranges in Colorado in an application now pending before the Federal Aviation Administration.

Some members of that team, which is led by the University of Colorado at Boulder and has such stakeholders as regional economic development agencies, universities, industry associations and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, are scheduled to be in Grand Junction today to showcase unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), while promoting a host of public and private uses for the technology.

This amid a climate of privacy concerns which has at least one Colorado community taking aim at drones—literally.

“We really won’t be talking about the public safety piece of this,” Sheriff’s Department quartermaster and UAS program director Ben Miller said of a planned demonstration today. “We’re looking at this from an economic impact perspective.”

Miller’s work with UAS technology has earned Mesa County a national reputation for law enforcement use of drones. He’ll be demonstrating the Sheriff’s Department’s Falcon unit this morning at the new Colorado Law Enforcement Training Center in Clifton.

If Colorado’s pending application is approved by the FAA, Mesa County could be one of 14 Colorado test “ranges,” which aside from Mesa County, includes airspace close to Front Range airports and above private ranches, among other locations.

The FAA has said it will approve six test site applications nationally. Twenty-four states, including Colorado, are in the running for a site in keeping with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which mandates the agency integrate UAS into the national airspace. FAA’s site selections are expected to be announced in December.

Collectively, 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 UAS team.

“We have the intention of trying to operate whether we win a test site or not,” VanderWerf said. “We’re anticipating (approval of) a test site will just allow us quicker FAA approval (for individual flights).”

While it would be helpful for Colorado to have that FAA test site designation, it doesn’t really need it for the UAS industry to take off, said Chris Miser, owner of Denver-based Falcon UAV.

Miser sold one of his 9-pound, carbon fiber and aluminum Falcon fixed-wing units to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department in 2011. Miser, a former U.S. Air Force captain who developed the technology for the military in Iraq during the war, started his business in 2007 because he saw the potential.

And that potential has nothing to do with government spying or any other federal application, he said.

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