After pushing through the daunting 10,709 foot Hayden pass, the San Luis Valley (SLV) stretched out for miles below us. The Cessna 172’s windshield failed to contain the vast landscape, guarded on all sides by snow-capped mountains, and both pilot and passenger found themselves craning their necks to take in the view. The area is truly unique, featuring a diverse collection of farmlands, ranching, canyons, vast national forest and wildland areas, and mountains over 14,000 feet high. It’s also unique due to the abundance of local support for both unmanned and manned aviation, including specific improvements to airports to support UAS operations, as well as securing permission for partnering companies to operate up to 15,000 feet MSL.
Black Swift Technologies and UAS Colorado recently partnered to showcase the outstanding flight and regulatory conditions of the SLV in Saguache County, Colorado. On April 22, 2016 Jack Elston, CEO of Boulder based Black Swift Technologies, and Constantin Diehl, President of UAS Colorado, flew the 172 from the Denver area to meet with County Commissioners, Airport Managers and Economic Development representatives to showcase the area’s excellent conditions and the ease with which they can be utilized.
In a regulatory environment that is not always conducive to commercial UAS operations, there has been a special effort to create a local environment for UAS testing and evaluation in Colorado. In fact, the operational limitations in the SLV are less restrictive than in most of the designated FAA UAS test sites across the country because of the coordinated efforts between 6 Counties. Additionally, airport managers and county commissioners have partnered to improve local facilities in support of extended UAS operations. Michael Spearman, project coordinator for Leach airport and Director for “High Altitude UAV Testing” in Saguache County was excited to talk about the improvements that they’ve recently completed:
Michael Spearman, Project Coordinator for Leach Airport and Director for “High Altitude UAV Testing” in Saguache County was excited to talk about the improvements that they have recently completed and those that they are currently working on.
“We have added specific areas for conducting UAS operations as well as added improvements to make multi-day operations feasible without having to leave the Airport.
UAV operators, will be able to park their equipment, set up their ground infrastructure and support teams for as long as necessary to accomplish their objectives. 100 LL fuel is available for aircraft. Secure overnight clean storage areas are available for UAV’s as well as adequate electrical outlets for charging batteries. Outdoor shaded areas with tables and propane grill are available, so is a Lounge/Conference room with conference table, refrigerator, microwave, water, telephone, Wi Fi and bathrooms.
Spearman, along with County Commissioner Ken Anderson and Executive Director of the Alamosa County Economic Development Corporation Randy Wright, met Constantin and Jack when they landed, eager to see a particular piece of cargo: The SwiftTrainer UAS from Black Swift Technologies. Although compact and incredibly simple to operate, the vehicle is quite capable. Among a host of other features, it contains a proprietary algorithm to determine location extremely accurately. This allows an operator to make use of images automatically obtained from the on-board 24 MP camera to create maps with centimeter-level accuracy, even without RTK GPS.
The group set off for nearby Penitente Canyon, a rugged grouping of igneous rocks left as a reminder of the area’s violent geological past. With exciting variation in elevation and limited open space to operate from, the area was perfect to test the SwiftTrainer UAS’ capabilities. After minimal setup, Jack threw the aircraft into the air and it began its mapping task, hardly struggling at an altitude of nearly 8000 ft. 15 minutes later the mapping was complete and the aircraft set itself down right next to the group. The data was sent for analysis to local Colorado company DroneMapper, who has been a key partner in realizing the incredible accuracy of data from the SwiftTrainer platform. Pierre Stoermer, CEO of DroneMapper, reported of the data set, “Once again, very nice flight lines and camera triggering. We are seeing a real photogrammetry collection platform in action.”
Following an additional mapping mission at a nearby ranch, the group was joined by Francis Song, OEM Director for Alamosa County Emergency Management. UAS represent a real opportunity to improve their ability to save lives. The SLV’s incredible collection of hiking, mountain biking and climbing opportunities bring throngs of visitors to the area every year, and with them the need for a well prepared search and rescue operation.
Francis, Ken, Randy and Michael are all representative of the incredibly supportive group in the SLV, excited to play an important role in the emerging UAS market. “Although it was only a short trip today, we were able to witness firsthand the incredible opportunities in this area. Black Swift Technologies already has plans to return in the near future as part of a NASA SBIR to sample plumes above high altitude volcanoes, and we’re incredibly lucky to be so close to one of the few places in the US where we can test the system at its intended altitudes,” commented Jack Elston. Given the incredible opportunities in the Valley, Black Swift Technologies won’t be the only company looking to travel here in the near future.
For further information on UAS Colorado, contact Constantin via email at email@example.com. For more on Black Swift Technologies, contact Jack Elston at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UAS Colorado is a non-profit business league, committed to promoting and improving the aerospace industry in Colorado, particularly supporting the safe integration and use of unmanned aircraft systems throughout the state for the benefit of the public.