The Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) Technodrome, a new drone-testing facility in Garfield County, Colo., will help public safety professionals become certified drone users. But just as significant, the 7,000-square-foot space may give responders the opportunity to share situation-specific stories about their utilization of drones in the field, which could result in extra lives being saved down the road.
CoE Director Ben Miller, who has been in the drone game for a decade, said no other state offers anything like the Technodrome, as far as he knows. The facility, housed in the Rifle Garfield County Airport, will support another idea that is unique in the public safety sector: the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s (CDPS) unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) certificate program, which is an internal training process that goes beyond Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements for drone users.
“Truly what the FAA requires is a very basic knowledge piece,” Miller said. “You answer some questions on a test on a computer and you get a certificate in the mail. There’s no practical exam, you know, no information about actual drones themselves, which is odd. It’s all about aviation and airspace.”
In the Technodrome, public safety staff will be able to take the “next step of professionalism,” Miller said. The facility will allow individuals to take the flight portion of the CDPS drone test on any day of the year, whether there’s rain, wind or snow. This testing process can create continuity across Colorado in terms of how drones can be a resource.
“We [will] know who across the state has been through the process, and we can call on them in large events,” he said.
Another purpose of the Technodrome relates to research and development. CoE serves as the research and development arm of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control. Miller said the Technodrome will let CoE test technologies in a standardized manner without having to worry about weather or security risks such as a drone going haywire and flying off somewhere unknown. Moreover, CoE can freely fly drones in the building without concern for FAA airspace regulations.
“There’s a lot of things that we do with unmanned systems and other technologies that we can’t test outside because they’re really not covered in the rules yet,” Miller said. “So by flying indoors … the FAA doesn’t have jurisdiction inside a facility. So we can fly big drones that are bigger than the 55 pounds [regulation].”
The structure of the Technodrome will also help enable various simulations. Though the facility has a steel frame, its walls and roof are fabric, which allows GPS to penetrate. Thus, when drones are flown inside the Technodrome, they don’t even recognize they’re indoors, Miller said.
The first Colorado department scheduled to use the Technodrome for training is the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District. Jeff Dyar, the district’s fire commissioner and a 47-year veteran in the field, said his organization has used drone technology for about 10 months. Even in that relatively brief timeframe, it seems that drone-related equipment and regulations “change overnight.” From Dyar’s standpoint, policies, procedures, applications and best practices for drones are not well defined, which points to a need for informed guidance.
“It’s great to have that agency [CoE] on the leading edge,” Dyar said. “We could never recreate that thing on the local level.”
In addition to gaining knowledge and expertise from CoE, Dyar hopes his department, as well as other local agencies, will be able to share unique experiences with drones in the Technodrome to add to CoE’s “experience base.” Within the last 10 months, Dyar’s department has already found itself in a number of distinct emergency situations in which his staff has had to learn things about drones on the spot.
For instance, Dyar recounted the river rescue of a kayaker who was stranded in the remote wilderness. Dyar’s crew had to overcome multiple complications. First, by regulation, this wilderness rescue mission could not involve “mechanical intervention,” meaning that drones could not take off or land in the area, so the drone had to take off miles away from the scene. Second, Dyar’s team had to deal with line-of-sight issues in mountainous terrain. Drones are limited to line-of-sight operations, so individual members of the rescue crew on the scene had to serve as “extended visual observers” for the drone to be able to operate. Eventually, the team was able to pull the kayaker up a cliff using rope from 100 feet up.
Dyar also described hypothetical situations where a drone could be a significant difference-maker. If lightning strikes a tree during a thunderstorm, it can cause smoldering at the base of the tree, but due to wetness, it may take five or six days before a fire ignites. Dyar said his department hopes that CoE can help determine whether a drone with an infrared camera could successfully identify these hot spots.
Even seemingly simpler ideas, like using a drone to examine the roof of a burning building for potential weak spots before sending a firefighter up, require a level of knowledge or training that departments like Dyar’s may not have.
“Falling through a roof is probably as scary as it gets … [a]s soon as we can figure out how to deliver a drone on site … we won’t put anyone up on a roof until we do that,” Dyar said.
Miller, who comes from a law enforcement background, pointed out that drone training for police and investigators is critical as well. A scientific obstacle course in the Technodrome will help with concepts like positioning the drone in a certain way to see things or using the machine to identify hazardous materials.
Miller said that everyone he has talked to, whether in Colorado or not, has expressed interest in the Technodrome. Questions remain about how his agency might go about working with other states, but his organization is open to engaging with entities that reach out for assistance.
“I think we’ve kind of found a need, right?” Miller said. “And it’s not just a need for the state of Colorado, it’s really a need for drone operators and public safety. … In fact, it’s kind of challenging right now to figure, ‘Well, what do we do to support our neighbor states?’ If Virginia calls us up and says, ‘Hey, we want to do that, too,’ what’s the process by which we transfer this [idea] over to them?”
Miller also said CoE can sublet the facility out to fire management organizations as a temporary command post. The day after the Technodrome opened, that very thing happened.
“All of a sudden up on the hill, there was a fire. … A guy walks in with the incident management team and says, ‘Hey, do you know who owns this place?’ It’s pretty funny. I said, ‘Well, you’re talking to the boss, and let’s chat. This is exactly what we thought would happen, and we would love to share it with you,’” Miller said.