U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Jeff Flake filed an amendment Wednesday night that would create two additional test sites for unmanned aerial systems, often called drones, to specifically focus on wildfire-mitigation technology.
More than a year ago, Congress passed legislation that President Barack Obama signed, requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to incorporate UAS technology into national airspace. The FAA then released a 68-page document in February outlining how states must go about applying to be one of the six test sites, for which there is intense competition.
Colorado is among the states pursuing test-site designation.
The Bennet-Flake amendment to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act would require the FAA to choose two additional test sites, with the stipulation that they focus significant attention on wildfire monitoring, mitigation and containment.
"Extreme wildfires have become an all-too-common occurrence in Colorado, leaving families without homes and hundreds of thousands of charred acreage in their paths," Bennet, D-Colo., said in a news release. "We need to employ every tool available to help firefighters in their battles."
The six designated sites will have a five-year license to test UAS technology in their airspace. Colorado's aerospace and economic-development leaders see having a test-site as a huge opportunity for gaining a head start in UAS research and development.
Bennet and Flake, R-Ariz., represent states with dry, fire-prone weather conditions and strong aerospace industries.
However, Colorado's UAS advocates worry they may be nudged out of the top six by some of the larger states, primarily along the coasts.
The Colorado UAS Team is being led by the University of Colorado at Boulder but includes more than 50 stakeholders, including 10 regional economic-development agencies, seven universities, five industry associations, two state agencies and many more private companies.
"Have we been as vocal as some of the others? No. Have we been discussing the value of UAS Colorado to the FAA on a daily basis? No. But in our application to the FAA, I think the information we provided is compelling," said Stan VanderWerf, executive director of the Colorado UAS Team.
While VanderWerf's team believes firefighting is one of the most important uses for UAS in Colorado, he says it isn't limited to that.
"We welcome the amendment. I believe we are competitive for one of the original six, but what Sen. Bennet is offering is relevant and important to Colorado to ensure we have a focus on firefighting," VanderWerf said. "For those in Colorado who support the environmental efforts, UAS can be used. ... It is also about search and rescue, it is also about agriculture and it is about wildlife."
The bill is on the floor, and Bennet's office expects a vote early next week.
Kristen Leigh Painter: 303-954-1638, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/kristenpainter