Colorado groups get FAA approval to fly UAS at 15,000 feet

By Ann Bailey | November 12, 2015

The University of Colorado-Boulder, UAS Colorado and six Colorado counties joined forces to win approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to test two unmanned aircraft systems in the San Luis Valley in Colorado.

The FAA awarded two Certificates of Operation for the UAS to fly at a height of up to 15,000 feet in an 8,000 square mile air space in the San Luis Valley.

The University of Colorado-Boulder began working in cooperation with UAS Colorado and the six Colorado counties in 2012 when Colorado was hoping to land a UAS test site. The groups worked closely with air traffic controllers at the Denver Air Traffic Control Center in Longmont, Colorado, in an effort to have the UAS flights cleared to a level of up to 15,000 feet, said Brian Argrow, UC-Boulder aerospace engineering science professor.

“When we were not selected, we said we will continue with this effort,” Argrow said.

University of Colorado-Boulder announced in September a university-wide “Grand Challenge” to build on the strengths of its aerospace-related science and technology. The university is investing $2 million in an Integrating Remote and InSitu Sensing Initiative to use UAS to improve research collection from the ground, in the atmosphere and in space.

Black Swift Technologies and UC-Boulder completed a successful flight of a Tempest UAS that carried instruments to measure soil moisture. The NASA Small Business Innovation Research Program provided support for the program.

The FAA this month awarded COAs for the Hummingbird, a 120-pound vertical UAS manufactured by Reference Technologies, and for a small battery-powered UAS developed by Swift Engineering. CU-Boulder intends to use each platform for research flights. 

Argrow sees the opportunity to fly the UAS up to 15,000 feet as a major accomplishment for UAS operations in Colorado and specifically believes it could benefit the San Luis Valley region.

“It certainly means that part of the state could benefit from potential economic development,” Argrow said. Adams State in Almosa, Colo., is discussing adding UAS classes for pilots to its curriculum, he said.

Colorado is an attractive place to fly UAS because of its varied terrain, Argrow said.

“Colorado has every type of terrain you can imagine, with the exception of the ocean. It’s a come to place,” he said.