Colorado Startups Push to Get Unmanned Aircraft Industry Airborne

10/31/13Follow @MichaelXBD

The sky might be the limit for the unmanned aircraft industry, but before it takes flight, the engineers, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts trying to build an industry that they say could soon have a $13.6 billion economic impact will have to navigate a tricky route through the offices of regulators and lawmakers—and the court of public opinion.

This is a fact of life for people like Allen Bishop, president and CEO of Reference Technologies. The three-year-old startup is designing and building unmanned aerial systems at its headquarters in Lafayette, CO, a town about 15 minutes east of Boulder.

ReferenceTek is building an autonomous system Bishop believes could revolutionize the way public safety officials respond to emergencies and how physicians deliver medicine in the developing world.

Bishop was showing off his aircraft Tuesday at a demonstration hosted by FreeWave Technologies, a Boulder-based company that makes radios. FreeWave wants to capitalize on what could be a growing industry, and for the prior two days had hosted a gathering of entrepreneurs and researchers to talk shop and show off its creations.

[A note on nomenclature: while the public and media call the vehicles drones, people in the industry shy away from the term. They prefer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for the aircraft itself and unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for the UAVs, ground stations, and communications systems that control them. They also distinguish between military drones equipped with missiles and used in combat with civilian systems.]

The guests and FreeWave’s employees ended the day in the company’s hangar-like break area for flight demonstrations. Bishop, though, began his day in Denver, meeting state legislators to discuss potential new bills UAS advocates believe could make or break the industry in the state.

Hexa-Copter

Drones are a controversial topic everywhere, but Colorado might be an extreme case. There are advocates like Bishop who talk about the potential to save lives, and entrepreneurs who have created small startups that build unmanned aerial vehicles, the software and hardware that runs them, and the components that can relay information to pilots. Colorado also has a robust aerospace industry: companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin have facilities in the state. The Air Force also has several bases around Colorado Springs.

“There’s a local cottage industry coming out of this that could well be huge,” Bishop said, likening it to the explosive growth of the PC industry in the 1980s.

A report released this year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a pro-industry advocacy group supported by the aerospace sector, has put forward some eye-catching figures. It estimates that once the FAA opens the skies to commercial UAVs, the industry would have a $13.6 billion economic impact within three years; by 2025, the impact could reach $82.1 billion. It also says the economic impact in Colorado will be $232 million by 2017.

But drone skeptics are unconvinced, and Colorado has plenty of people who are concerned about potential privacy violations or misuse by police. The most strident and extreme activists have persuaded the small rural Colorado town of Deer Trail to consider issuing “drone hunting licenses” that would allow them to shoot … Next Page »

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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