Drones in Denver: It's Still the Wild West

Despite what you see flying overhead, drones are off-limits in Denver's parks. Currently, the city's public safety agencies are exploring ways to use the unmanned aircraft in their work, while economic development officials are looking at business and environmental applications.

“Drones give you a unique perspective,” says Owen Brown, who teaches drone training at MindCraft Makerspace in Stapleton. Unmanned aircraft systems -- UAS for short -- allow remote pilots to “access things that are hard to reach,” as Brown puts it.

That’s something the Denver Police Department hopes to do — and soon. The department doesn’t currently use drone technology, but it’s in the process of purchasing a drone, mainly to expedite crime scene processing by surveying tops of buildings, says Christine Downs, a Denver Police spokesperson.

The Denver Fire Department hasn’t tapped into drones yet either, but a bigger state agency -- one nestled within the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control -- is working to change that following new legislation that mandates a statewide study on drone use by public safety agencies.  

The Center of Excellence is testing drones for use in the field. Photo provided by the Center for Excellence.

Colorado’s First Drone Law

House Bill 17-1070 -- introduced into the Colorado state legislature in January, and signed into law by Governor John Hickenlooper on June 5 -- is our state’s first UAS law.

The new law charges the Center of Excellence -- housed in Division of Fire Prevention & Control -- with conducting “a study concerning the integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) within state and local government operations that relate to certain public-safety functions.”

Basically, the bill requires the Center of Excellence to conduct a research on government operations while helping government agencies statewide understand, say, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations surrounding drones. The goal, says UAS and Military Integration Specialist Garrett Seddon, is to “get a program put together so [government agencies] can use this tool as a resource to help protect the citizens of Colorado.”

There was no funding provided in the bill, and the Center of Excellence is in the process of securing assets -- up to $1 million dollars -- for its study, which will evaluate the types of technology available to support state emergency response efforts.

“Some stuff you don’t necessarily need funding for,” Seddon points out. He and his colleges have already begun running pilot programs that test drone technology in real-world emergency response situations. Last month, for example, the Center for Excellence worked with emergency management teams containing the Deep Creek Fire near Hayden, Colorado, where drones were used to successfully identify the size and radius of the blaze.

Closer to home, Seddon’s team works to increase public awareness on drones. The Center of Excellence recently did a drone demonstration for the Denver Fire Department, and Melissa Lineberger -- chief of staff for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control -- testified before Denver City Council, talking about the benefits of the technology and the importance of avoiding laws that will restrict drone use.

Can drones be effective against forest fires? Photo provided by Center of Excellence.

“We’re trying to promote positive uses for public safety purposes,” Seddon says. But Lineberger points out, “There’s still a lot of uncertainty with [federal] preemption.” There are local jurisdictions in Colorado that have passed restrictive drone laws — Cherry Hills, for example, limiting recreational flights. “It’s a mess right now,” says Lineberger.

What are Denver’s drone rules anyway?

“The laws still have to catch up to the technology,” explains Tom Downey, with Ireland Stapleton and a longtime Colorado regulatory attorney.

There aren’t any Colorado state laws regulating drone use. Recreational and commercial pilots, then, are subject to federal laws — and those are largely dependent on why you’re flying.

Here in the U.S., the FAA has authority over airspace from the ground up, and anyone operating a drone is responsible for flying within the FAA’s guidelines. “Federal rules apply to both civilians and government officials,” Downey reminds us.
If you’re flying for fun, you won’t need a license, but you’ll have to follow a few rules: mainly, stay below 400 feet, keep your UAS in sight, and steer clear of other aircrafts, groups of people, stadiums and sports events. Also, don’t fly within five miles of an airport. “Everyone knows about DIA, but people forget that there are smaller municipal and private airports across Colorado,” Downey says, adding, “You cannot fly anything – from a private plane to a balloon – too close to an airport.”

If you’re flying your drone for work, you’ll need to follow the aforementioned rules plus a few more —mainly registering your aircraft and obtaining a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate.  

“As far as I know, all of Denver’s open spaces are off limits, including parks,” Brown says. He’s right. Up to 400 feet, the airspace above Denver’s public parks belongs to Denver Parks and Recreation, and the agency doesn’t allow drones — “for a couple of reasons,” says Cyndi Karvaski, public information officer for Denver Parks and Recreation.

One issue is the humming noise drones make, which disturbs both people and wildlife. “And people don’t want drones hovering above them in a public park,” Karvaski adds, bringing up the important issue of privacy.

House Bill 17-1070 was preceded by four other versions, all of which failed. Concerns touched on a range of topics, from cost to privacy. “The concern was that [drones] would be used to spy,” Lineberger explains — a far-fetched gripe, according to Seddon, who says emergency responders have better things to do with their time than spy on private citizens.

While you can’t take off from, say, Washington Park, Cherry Creek State Park has a Model Airfield with a special area sectioned off for drone flights. “That’s a good place to practice,” adds Brown.

“It’s very much the Wild West still, when it comes to what we can and can’t do with drones,” Brown continues. In his experience, “As long as you aren’t hassling anyone or being a nuisance, then people generally don’t care.”

One of Owen Brown's photos. He uses his unmanned aircraft to capture scenes of special events from unsual angles. Photo provided by Owen Brown.

Technically, if you’re caught violating the rules in a public park, a park ranger could issue a citation. “A lot of people don’t know that drones aren’t allowed in Denver parks,” says Karvaski. In lieu of citations, rangers in Denver usually start with a warning. “Most people comply,” Karvaski has noticed.  

Drones and the Denver Economy

The City of Denver may care more about economic impact than petty law enforcement. And for good reason. “The global drone market is currently worth $11.3 billion dollars, and by 2025, it’s projected to be a $80 billion dollar industry,” says Downey, adding, “Colorado wants to be a leader in this technology, to use it for job growth.”

In House Bill 17-1070, the Colorado General Assembly found that, “The use of UAS by public safety organizations will create opportunities and jobs.” Those findings are bolstered by national data from AUVSI, the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated solely to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community.

According to a national economic impact report conducted by AUVSI, in the first three years of drone integration more than 70,000 jobs will be created nationwide, with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion.

But Jeff Romine -- chief economist for Denver’s Office of Economic Development -- thinks it’s too early to tell what kind of impact drones will actually have on Denver’s economy. “This is a field that’s opening up right before us,” he says, adding, “It’s been emerging for four to five years, and people are trying to understand what drones can do for our economy.”

Owen Brown's shot of Denver's largest football stadium.

Denver’s Office of Economic Development has talked to Denver-based manufacturing firms working with drones. “Most no longer manufacture these devices,” Romine reports. “They’re trying to think about their application in the greater economy,” he says.

Same goes for Denver. “We’ve begun to intersect with drones more through the National Western Center, through their agribusiness,” explains Romine. The goal is to figure out how drones can be used for remote sensing, for obtaining more information and using it to improve the environment as well as the outcomes and outputs of farmers and ranchers.

It’s this “data side” of drones, Romine says, that shows the most economic and financial promise for Denverites. “For this metropolitan area, it’s about utilizing the data and turning it into useful information that can then help local businesses,” Romine adds.

Developments in local education bolster pro-drone policy. A drone might be unmanned, but it’s still controlled by a pilot, and commercial drone pilots need specialized training and certification under FAA guidelines.

In addition to online resources, Seddon says, “Universities such as Metropolitan State University of Denver are offering training courses.” The University of Colorado-Denver offers a new Drones 101 course that might be the only academic one of its kind in the country, according to the school. There’s also a graduate level course -- Unmanned Aerial Systems -- aimed at providing information and practical skills for managing a project using drones.

With the right combination of education and legislation, drones might strengthen Denver’s emergency response agencies along with its economy.


Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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