Laramie airport to develop drone industry

By: 
Wyoming News Exchange

By Ike Fredregill

Laramie Boomerang

Via Wyoming News Exchange

 

LARAMIE — Laramie could soon become the nation’s second drone hub, providing Wyoming with a center for unmanned aircraft flights and data collection, Laramie Regional Airport Board Chairman Tim Stamp said.

“Laramie would be an excellent site for a drone hub because we have open air space, land that’s available to build on and we have the University of Wyoming,” Stamp said. “The ability for UW to help with the data download could be the most important factor.”

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), aka drones, are aircraft flown without human pilots onboard; instead, UAS are controlled by operators on the ground, according the Federal Aviation Administration.

While popularized by recreational quadcopters buzzing around backyards across the nation, a Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesperson said UAS could be the future of remote data collection.

Sheri Taylor works for the WYDOT Aeronautics Division as the Federal Aviation Policy and UAS program manager, and currently, she is working with Stamp and Gov. Matt Mead’s office to create regulations that promote a drone economy as well as maintain the safety of Wyoming’s skies.

“There’s all types of applications for drones depending on what you’re asking the drone to do,” Taylor said.

“A lot of state’s departments of transportation are currently implementing programs using drones to inspect roads and bridges.”

UAS could also benefit search and rescue missions in many of the Wyoming’s remote areas, she added.

As for Laramie, Stamp said several industries are interested in access to unmanned aircraft including the railroad, energy sector and the agricultural community.

“This really is not so much about the UAS systems as it is about the data,” he said. “The drones bring back two terabytes an hour of data, so you have to have a robust electronic system and cyber security, which is where a partnership with UW would be beneficial.”

Partners

Working with Infinity Development Partners, LLC, Stamp said the airport board plans to facilitate the growth of an unmanned aircraft industry, which could serve Wyoming and neighboring states.

Infinity President and partner Tom Swoyer said his company pitched the idea during an economic development competition hosted by the airport board.

“They raised their hand and asked, ‘What could we do here?’” Swoyer said. “We responded with how about putting a drone airport here?”

With two runways capable of supporting unmanned aircraft, scheduled manned flights and the airport board’s willingness to develop the area to accommodate the industry, Swoyer said Laramie Regional Airport was a prime location for a drone hub.

The nation’s first drone hub was constructed in North Dakota, where the first FAA approved beyond-visual-line-of-sight large UAS flight occurred in August, he said.

“The challenges of developing a UAS hub on the real-estate side are not hard, but the tech is moving faster than the regulatory environment can keep up with,” Swoyer explained.

In most states, including Wyoming, it is currently illegal for an operator to fly a drone beyond her visual line of sight.

If regulations could be installed, permitting the operators to fly without keeping the drone in sight, Swoyer said drone data could benefit several industries in Wyoming.

“The ranching industry is very interested in drones to capture data such as if the fences are in good shape, if gates were left open, locating strays after moving herds and starting to use drones to understand the health of animals,” he explained. “The energy industry is interested in using drones to support environmental management.”

Additionally, Stamp said using UAS to collect data was more effective than using airplanes.

“The cost of using UAS instead of manned aircraft is significantly less, plus you don’t have the danger of putting two people in the sky,” he said. “(UAS) were designed for data analysis and collection; whereas, airplanes were designed for transport. It’s a better tool for the job.”

Regulations

Before Laramie’s drone industry can take flight, Stamp said the government would need to lift the beyond-visual-line-of-sight restriction.

Taylor said her division was working to expedite new UAS regulations for the state, but rushing the process could result in trouble further down the road.

“The challenges would be putting in place the right regulations,” she said. “Regulations that would promote safety without hindering economic development.”

Some safety concerns include flying UAS in proper airspace, protecting people’s privacy, ensuring UAS operators are properly certified and the UAS are certified and operationally sound.

“We don’t have any state statutes (regarding UAS flights) in Wyoming other than the FAA rules,” she said. “We’re working with Swoyer’s folks, UW and (Laramie Regional Airport) folks to make sure safety is first and foremost.”

Creating new regulations for drones would not only be a boon for the Laramie Regional Airport development, but WYDOT, law enforcement and other first responder agencies as well.

“Especially being a rural state, a drone program would be a huge benefit,” Taylor said. “We could streamline some processes with the use of drones because of the space and distance between projects. North Dakota has already seen some of that.”

To better understand how drone-flight regulations could affect the state, WYDOT is working closely with North Dakota’s aeronautics program.

“We have the opportunity to learn from (North Dakota’s) mistakes as well as identify the policies that work very well,” Taylor said. “By working with North Dakota … we would also have access to some of the contacts they have in the industry.”

Thus far, creating the regulations is going smoothly, and she said the state could have a policy for flying drones beyond visual line of sight within six months.

Once created, Stamp said the airport board’s endeavor could begin in earnest.

“This is an opportunity for Laramie to be in on the ground floor of a new burgeoning technology,” he said. “You don’t often get the chance to be a part of the beginning of something that could change the world.”

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