10:42am

Thu May 30, 2013
Drones

Boulder Drone Program May Give State Edge

The FAA is expected to decide whether to allow people to fly drones in certain parts of Colorado. That would be in a proposed FAA test site in this state... and it’s part of a larger effort to better understand whether the remote controlled, unmanned planes can be safely used in the airspace above communities - like airplanes or other aircraft.

CU Boulder is taking the lead on the application for the test site, partly because the University’s unmanned aircraft research center. Director Eric Frew says he’s recently stopped using the formal name, “unmanned aircraft systems,” and has started using “drones.”

Director Eric Frew speaks with students.
Credit Courtesy University of Colorado Boulder

“If you would have talked with me about two months ago I would have never used that term. I would have started this discussion by saying I’m going to call it an unmanned aircraft because I hate the word ‘drone.’”

Frew changed his ways because he wants people to understand they’re not scary or invade people’s privacy... contrary to ongoing debates about those concerns and military attacks against terrorists abroad.

“Whenever I talk to a public audience I always ask, who’s ever flown in an airplane. And then I ask who’s ever flown in an airplane that’s flown itself, and people always put their hands down. And I tell them put your hands back up. Because most of that plane flight was on an autopilot anyways.”

CU Boulder scientists have been flying drones... with special permission... for more than ten years. That’s largely for arctic or polar science research.

“Most of the things that we fly, look like an aircraft. So they have, you know they’re fixed wing aircraft, they’re the same basic size and shape. Now, the ones that we fly at the university of Colorado are what are termed small unmanned aircraft. So they’re typically, you know, less than hundred pounds of weight, less than ten foot wingspan. And they’re carrying only science instruments, sensors, to measure the atmosphere.”

And they’re far smaller than most military drones often in the news. There are estimates the drone industry could mean billions of dollars. Proponents say fears about the technology are one reason the industry is stalling.  Another is figuring out how drones can fly around in the air like other aircraft... without causing accidents or problems.

“And there’s a little bit of a chicken and and the egg problem. How do you demonstrate the technology can help us be safe, if it can’t be in the environment to test the technology.”

So the FAA is setting up test sites around the country to do just that... and hopefully in Colorado, too, if Director Eric Frew and his colleagues are successful.

“Anybody who has an interest in developing unmanned aircraft technology, would come in and use the sites. Scientists, commercial companies. So the underlying purpose is to help the FAA how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, and how to safely build unmanned aircraft technology.”

As for the controversial military drones, Frew says it’s unlikely military drones would be flown in the proposed Colorado test site.

“You know the military has its own airspace. So they’re not, i don’t think, lacking for places to fly. It’s more airspace that is public airspace, where you want to be able to interact with air traffic and manned aircraft.”

Exactly where the test site would be in Colorado isn’t public just yet -- but some of the state’s bigger cities and towns would be off the map.

“Certainly I don’t know of anyone who’s even tried to fly an unmanned aircraft over a city like Denver. So we’re not talking heavy population, but we’re not talking barren land, either.”

CU Boulder--and its partners-- will find out towards the end of this year, if the FAA has selected Colorado as a test site for drones.