TRINIDAD — As the county attorney for Alamosa County, Colorado, you could say that Jason Kelly already has a good overview of day-to-day life in this south-central region of Colorado. As an active member of the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) advisory committee for Trinidad State College, Kelly’s vantage point is elevated even higher.
Kelly’s connection with Trinidad State was formed over five years ago when he was approached by UAS Colorado, a not-for-profit organization championing UAS opportunities in the state of Colorado. They asked him to help promote the San Luis Valley as an FAA-approved test zone for drone flights.
The Perfect Geography for a Drone Hub
“The San Luis Valley comprises about six counties in south-central Colorado,” says Kelly. “We are the highest valley, pretty much, in the world. Our elevation here is about 7,500 feet, surrounded by mountains. It has an area of about 8,100 square miles, so it’s a pretty large area where drone operators can really expand on the use of UAVs [unarmed aerial vehicles] and do some testing.” Although the San Luis Valley wasn’t selected as one of the FAA’s test sites, it was awarded the largest Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) of anywhere in the country at that time to conduct extensive UAS test flights.
“If a drone operator wants to fly a drone heavier than 55 lbs. and up to a height of 15,000 feet, they contact me,” says Kelly. “I work with them to get them authorized under our COA and then we would work with them and UAS Colorado to coordinate those flights.”
Kelly believes that by positioning the San Luis Valley as a hub in the fledgling drone industry, the region will benefit beyond the increased flight opportunities.
“We live in a pretty economically depressed area, so any new jobs that we can bring in, especially on a higher-scale level, would be really exciting,” says Kelly. “If we bring a lot of people in — they stay for two or three weeks in our hotels, they spend money here — that’s an indirect benefit that we can bring into the Valley.”
UAS Operator Job Opportunities
While most of the drone operators Kelly works with are operating at the experimental end of the industry, he insists that there are already many opportunities available for drone pilot school graduates.
“In the current job market, companies are always looking for pilots,” says Kelly. “A lot of them are looking to use smaller drones to gather information and data — things like inspecting transmission lines, wind turbines, and railroads.”
The need to monitor changes in environmental conditions also creates opportunities for drone operators.
“Government and environmental organizations can inspect things like waterways, collecting data and comparing it with historical data so they can check for erosion and things like that,” says Kelly.
According to Kelly, areas like search and rescue and law enforcement already present significant opportunities for drone pilots.
“Search and rescue is probably the biggest opportunity because you’re able to get to places you are not able to get to with other rescue equipment,” says Kelly. “Currently, a drone operator can conduct a basic search with a drone equipped with an infrared camera to identify the location of an individual. As the vehicle goes up in size, it can be used to take supplies there. This could include a radio or a first aid kit, so it potentially extends the life of that individual and buys them a little more time for rescue personnel to actually reach them.”
There are also economies of cost when drones are used. By employing drone pilots, companies and organizations stand to realize considerable savings over operations that were previously only possible with manned aviation systems.
“Running a helicopter would cost approximately $400 to $600 an hour,” says Kelly. “With a drone — assuming you have already purchased it —basically you are only paying for a pilot who would probably cost anywhere between $50 and $75 per hour. So you are talking pretty substantial savings.”
High Flying Opportunities for Entrepreneurs in Colorado
Kelly believes that there is an excellent opportunity for drone pilot school graduates to start their own businesses and suggests that in Colorado, the agricultural industry could present a potentially lucrative route to fly.
“We’re an agriculture-based economy and water is a prime concern,” says Kelly. “With our compacts that we have with the downflow states, we have to send so much water down to them and that’s based on a formula. The more data that we can collect about what our snowpack is and the amount of moisture we have, it gives us a more precise and more accurate estimate of what we can retain to make sure that we are maximizing our use of that water.
Kelly believes that agriculture also presents an opportunity for the entrepreneurial-minded.
“If someone wanted to take the opportunity to go round some of the farms, I think that’s where they would find some opportunities to do some work,” says Kelly. “Because water is such a difficult commodity to manage, a drone operator could take a drone up and check the moisture levels across a large area of land. With this information, they can help the farmer say, ‘I don’t need to water today except for this two-acre section right here on my 160 acres of land.’ They can water that specific area today and then turn their water off — and go back and water the whole thing tomorrow when needed.”
As the industry takes off and regulations are put into place to allow for larger drones to share airspace with commercial and other manned aircraft, Kelly believes that the skills learned in UAS classes at Trinidad State will stand drone pilots in good stead.
“With their Part 107 license from the FAA to fly drones commercially, those students are going to be familiar with the rules and regulations that they have to abide by,” says Kelly. “They will also have a good understanding of how to plan their missions, and how to collect and analyze data captured from drone flight operations. These are the kind of skills employers are looking for and will set students apart from hobbyists with limited flight experience.”
To learn more about the opportunities available to professional drone pilots or to enroll in Trinidad State’s Unmanned Aviation Systems program, go to trinidadstate.edu/uas/.