(TNS) — With drones, government officials can zoom through rugged canyons in search of missing hikers, hover over charred landscapes to assess wildfire damage and float above roads and bridges for inspection.
Like many other public agencies across the country, El Paso County is moving forward with plans to use drones to save time and money on government work. County officials aren't sure exactly what roles the devices will play, although they have a myriad options. Local governments in Colorado are using drones for an array of purposes, from making sure stormwater drainage systems are properly functioning to digitally preserving crime scenes.
Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft, are remotely piloted, often equipped with cameras, that can be as small as hummingbirds or as large as a commercial jets. The technology has been used to drop missiles on suspected terrorists in the Middle East, assess the health of waterways and wildlife and even deliver purchases to Amazon customers.
The county is expected to choose a contractor for "unmanned aircraft services" late this month or early May, said Commissioner Stan VanderWerf, who has helped spearhead the effort to make drones available to the county.
According to the county's request for proposals, which closed March 27, the government has considered using drones to photograph construction site progress, inspect infrastructure and survey land more efficiently and assist law enforcement agencies and emergency responders.
"This is a process to save money by using a new technology," said VanderWerf, owner of defense industry consulting firm Advanced Capitol LLC, which has worked with unmanned aircraft companies. He is not involved in the contractor selection process.
How much money the county will spend or save by hiring a contractor is uncertain. Drones vary in flight capabilities, battery life and camera quality. Some are equipped with sophisticated features such as heat sensors and radar technology. And because the unmanned aircraft services industry is in its infancy, price points are still evolving.
"That's kind of like asking what a car costs," said Ken Hanes, co-owner of locally-based AGL Drone Services. "The next question is, do you want a Ferrari, or do you want a Volkswagen Beetle?"
Boulder County Parks and Open space found rates for drone services vary extensively. In March, the department asked for two hours of raw video footage and 100 high resolution photos of a flood-damaged public recreation area. Proposed bids ranged from $1,400 to $14,000, said department project coordinator Barry Shook.
The decision to begin using drones will land El Paso County alongside other public agencies in Colorado and across the country that have made the same choice: in the midst of a national debate weighing the value of the aircraft to local governments and the privacy rights of the citizens they serve.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which governs the use of drones in the United States, does not require government agencies obtain public approval or give notice before they begin using the machines.
A few government entities in Colorado have created policies that stipulate how their agencies can use drones and which officials must sign off on projects before the aircraft can take flight, but many that are using the technology have not. La Plata County, which will soon begin using drones for disaster and emergency response, has an extensive approval policy that requires proposals for government use describe how data is collected and if it is shared or retained.
El Paso County has no plans to create any sort of regulatory framework, VanderWerf said. He emphasized that privacy laws always apply, regardless of what technologies governments are using.
Federal privacy law protects individuals on private property from being photographed or spied on without their permission, and law enforcement typically has to obtain a search warrant before searching someone's home under the Fourth Amendment. But there are no privacy safeguards at the national level specifically created to dictate how local governments can use drones or the data they capture with them.
Critics say existing privacy laws aren't enough to protect citizens from the surveillance potential of the emerging technology. States have created laws related to unmanned aircraft use aimed at protecting citizens' privacy rights, although the Colorado General Assembly has yet to pass such a bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last month, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced a bill that would require public agencies to disclose to the FAA how they plan to collect, use and share data obtained by drones before they are allowed to fly the aircraft. The so-called Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act would also mandate that law enforcement agencies have a search warrant for drone surveillance, although the legislation provides an exception for extreme circumstances.
The county's contract will also make it easier for public agencies in the region to begin using drones. Colorado Springs and the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, for example, will have the option to piggyback on the agreement, using the same terms to hire the company or companies chosen instead of having to devise their own contract.
The Gazette is not aware of any other public agencies with definitive plans to use the contract, although the El Paso County Sheriff's Office is interested in using drones for investigations and fighting wildfires.
Fire Warden John Padgett called the technology a "force-multiplier" that would allow the department to more quickly and efficiently map wildfires and monitor their activity.
The vantage points provided by a drone would help crews ascertain what properties should be evacuated and what equipment is needed to battle a blaze, Padgett said.
In Denver, the drones purchased by the city's public works department have saved Operations Engineer Kevin Lewis at least 100 hours a year in time spent inspecting the dozens of large flood-control detention ponds in the area.
Lewis said he can use his iPad to stream video from the camera and complete the evaluations from afar, instead of having to put his waders on to examine the ponds' dams, spillways, inlets and outlets.
"I can hover over the water and get the vantage point I need and actually see a lot better and do a better inspection," he said. "It takes a lot of the work and a lot of the risk out of it."
Less than a year ago, government entities had to jump through regulatory hoops if they wanted to fly drones.
But the FAA implemented new rules last August allowing drones to be used for non-recreational purposes if they weigh less than 55 pounds, are flown less than 400 feet above the ground and meet several other requirements. Before the regulations changed, public agencies could only use the aircraft by obtaining special permission from the FAA, known as a certificate of authorization.
Several counties in Colorado have the certificates, which allow for larger drones and higher-altitude flights. Alamosa and Chaffee counties have obtained the authorizations in the hopes of attracting unmanned aircraft companies, which can contract with the governments to operate with the greater freedom allowed by the certificates.
Colorado is home to one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to begin using drones.
The Mesa County Sheriff's Office has used its two unmanned aircraft more than 100 times since 2008 for firefighting and crime scene photography, said Megan Terlecky, a spokeswoman for the agency.
With drone footage, the agency can electronically record crime scenes following shootings and homicides, allowing investigators to revisit software-generated 3-D renderings of the sites exactly as they appeared after the violent offenses were committed.
The Sheriff's Office spends less than $25,000 on the equipment and estimates operational costs amount to about $25 an hour, while hiring manned aircraft can costs hundreds or thousands of dollars an hour.
"It has definitely opened up a wealth of opportunities and resources for us," Terlecky said.
Drones have also become a helpful apparatus in search and rescue missions.
Since 2014, the Boulder County Sheriff's Office has contracted with a local nonprofit, Boulder Emergency Squad, for unmanned aircraft services, primarily for search and rescue purposes, said Stephan Meer, the deputy in charge of the agency's aircraft program. Drones have not only saved the Sheriff's Office overtime pay for employees and costs of fuel and vehicle maintenance, but they've also made missions safer for crew members.
"You can very quickly cover an area that would be very difficult or dangerous for individuals on foot to cover," Meer said. "There's multiple ways that it pays for itself."
The purposes drones serve now is just the tip of an iceberg for local governments, said Tim Haynie, owner of Springs-based data analytics company Spectrabotics, which offers data processing services for drone users.
"We're just now learning what the utility is. We never had this level of information before this fast," he said, adding that El Paso County's decision to contract with a company for unmanned aircraft services is "a great step."
While other public agencies have opted to purchase drones, El Paso County officials say they turned toward the private sector to have constant access to the latest technology and the knowledge of how best to use it.
"This gives us a way to contract with people who are already in the business that are experts in the field and take advantage of their expertise without trying to become experts ourselves," said County Administrator Henry Yankowski.
David Couch, owner of Springs-based aircraft consultation and services company Red Scarf Enterprises LLC, advised county officials to go through the competitive bid process when they first began contemplating using drones.
"This technology is going to be just like a computer. Next year, what the latest and greatest is this year, people won't even be talking about," said Couch, who also serves as legislative affairs director for nonprofit business league Unmanned Aircraft Systems Colorado. "It keeps El Paso County on the leading edge of it because their contractors are going to have to be."
©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.