Colorado Startups Push to Get Unmanned Aircraft Industry Airborne

10/31/13Follow @MichaelXBD

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down the vehicles.

Bishop is active in industry groups trying to bring a Federal Aviation Authority testing center to Colorado, which they believe could create jobs. The groups also lobby for UAS industry-friendly laws and regulations. Bishop said he wants ReferenceTek to stay in Colorado and grow into an industry leader, but legal issues are a concern, and that means persuading politicians and citizens to see the benefits of unmanned aerial systems.

“What we’re trying to do is educate the public that these are not something to be feared, these are useful tools,” Bishop said. “They will find your missing child, or the bad guy hiding in the woods.”

It was unlikely that many drone skeptics were in the crowd at FreeWave’s event, but people were aware of the issues. Steve Cass, the FreeWave employee who organized the event and specializes in “airspace management,” said the FAA, lawmakers in Congress and each state, and others face a real challenge in determining how to integrate unmanned aircraft into the airspace. Air traffic controllers and pilots will have to cope, so it’s worth getting the regulations right. Congress has told the FAA to figure it all out by September 2015.

“The process, as cumbersome as it might be, is probably for the best,” Cass said.

On the other hand, Cass thinks privacy concerns are overblown and vehemently believes there’s only so much good regulations can do. The problem isn’t technology, but people.

“You can regulate all you want, but idiots will always do stupid things,” Cass said.

The controversy isn’t likely to go away, but on Tuesday afternoon it was definitely in the background, as technology took center stage.

A handful of companies showed off elegant fixed-wing UAVs, while teams from the University of Nebraska’s campuses in Lincoln and Omaha brought less-refined systems that could take off vertically. There was supposed to be a race, but bad weather kept everyone inside.

Reference Technologies had two vertical-takeoff aircraft on display. One was its battery-powered hexacopter, a craft with six rotors that looks like the brawnier, bigger, more advanced cousin of systems that already are available commercially. The hexacopter can stay airborne for about 45 minutes and is smart enough to navigate autonomously over a course set by waypoints and even find its way home if it needs to. It is currently in production, and one that’s been maxed out with cameras and sensors would cost about $3,000, according to Bishop.

But ReferenceTek is betting on the Hummingbird line, which Bishop believes is a major step forward for unmanned aerial systems.

Hummingbird IIThe Hummingbird, with a barrel-like carbon-fiber body supported by carbon-fiber legs, certainly didn’t look like any other UAS on display. Plastic boxes that can hold electronic components, sensors, or cargo ring the outside of the body, and six arms that protrude from the vehicle’s chassis each hold a rotor.

Bishop said the key difference between the Hummingbird and other unmanned craft is the large gas-powered directed fan that is inside the body and gives the Hummingbird enough thrust to set new performance standards. The prototype hasn’t been flight tested yet, but ReferenceTek estimates the top-of-the-line Hummingbird will have a maximum speed of 50 miles per hour, the ability to carry 20 pounds, a range of up to 250 miles, and an operational ceiling of up to 5,000 feet. It also would be capable of autonomous flight and be able to communicate its position to other aircraft. Potentially, Hummingbirds would be smart enough to change course without human intervention.

As recently as five years ago, technology this advanced only existed in the dreams of futurists or in dystopian science fiction.

“These will be in a certain sense self-aware,” Bishop said.

Bishop is waiting on FAA clearance to conduct flight tests. Another option is to test the Hummingbird at a military base near Colorado Springs. Either way, it should be aloft soon.

“We’re going to be flying this within the next several weeks,” he said.

Bishop believes the vehicle will prove a game changer when commercial production begins early next year. The Hummingbird will have the range and payload capacity needed to ferry medical supplies to remote outposts in developing countries, or the ability to air drop survival kits to injured mountain climbers trapped in inhospitable terrain, and during conditions that would ground rescue helicopters.

According to Bishop, ReferenceTek has received inquiries about the Hummingbird from potential clients in Germany and Israel, and the U.S. military, U.S. Geological Survey, and several United Nations aid agencies have shown interest. Base models will probably cost around $125,000.

ReferenceTek is Bishop’s third startup. His biggest prior success was a company that built laptop computer systems and video recorders for police cars. Bishop and a small number of investors have put about $3.25 million into ReferenceTek, with most of the money coming from him, Bishop said.

The founders of Black Swift Technologies are at the other end of the experience spectrum. Jack Elston, the president and CEO, is a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of Colorado-Boulder, where he studied at the college’s Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles. Black Swift is housed in an industrial space in Boulder, but it wasn’t too long ago that Elston was working out of his home.

Black Swift designs and manufactures autopilot systems for aircraft and ground stations for their operators. It also makes an app for Android tablets that enables users to create flight plans with mapping software like Google Maps.

Elston’s and Black Swift’s app could make piloting unmanned aircraft systems simple, but for the next few years, it’s hard to envision that much else drone-related will be easy.

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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