The ways in which drone technology might be able to transform various industries have been detailed and discussed in many different contexts, but the sticking point in most of these conversations revolves around what it means to effectively leverage these tools. The connection between the technology and what professionals can and should be doing with UAVs is an issue that many struggle to sort out, but emergency response officials are often especially challenged in this regard. That’s why the work being done at the Center of Excellence (CoE) for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting (CoE) is so critical.

The CoE, the very first public organization of this type, was created in Senate Bill 14-164. As part of Colorado’s Department of Public Safety, the CoE is designed to research, test, and evaluate technology that supports effective and efficient aerial firefighting techniques, but their efforts have branched into new areas. House Bill 17-1070 concerns the study of unmanned aerial systems for public safety applications, and it requires the CoE to conduct a study regarding integration of UAS into government public safety operations.


Bridging the Gap

It’s easy enough to talk about helping emergency response professionals figure out what drones can do for them, but how is the approach taken at the CoE different from other agencies and departments? Why are their efforts significant?

“When it comes down to it, the CoE is charged with researching aerial technology for wild land firefighting,” said Garrett Seddon, Military and UAS Integration Specialist at the CoE. “I’ve been able to help broaden that scope though, as we're now focused on figuring out how we can get this technology into the hands of each agency and show them the feasibility of the technology. It’s a very real need, because many of these agencies don’t have funding for one of the more expensive platforms, and that might not be what they need anyway. We're really trying to define and look at the technology and how we can get it out there for the use of public safety practitioners.”

Ultimately, the CoE is tasked with bridging the gap for the smaller departments that don't have the manpower, time or money to allocate the resources to research this technology and actually implement it. Various agencies have either tried to set up their own drone program or purchased a UAV without knowing what they wanted to use it for, and this can create more problems than it solves. In those situations, what often happens is that the people involved didn't have enough guidance around how to set a program up within the organization.

The CoE specifically speaks to professionals in these agencies to help determine what that drone program should look like. They are planning to help stakeholders identify what platforms and payloads will be most appropriate for their missions, but they aren’t there to tell those contacts what to do. Sometimes an off-the-shelf unit is all that’s needed, and sometimes a department has the will and resources to be a bit more ambitious. Professionals of all types and sizes are excited about technology, but many don't have a vision quite yet. The CoE is dedicated to helping these departments create that vision.

Images from the sUAS in Public Safety Summit

Images from the sUAS in Public Safety Summit


Establishing the Need

The recent sUAS in Public Safety Summit that was put on by the CoE provided public safety practitioners and senior leaders from Colorado and other states with an opportunity to connect with one another and discuss how drones can and are being utilized. It was enlightening to hear how attendees fell into distinct categories, and showcased where help is needed.

“Some of the attendees were investigating or exploring using small unmanned systems for public safety operations,” said Seddon. “Others said they were currently using small unmanned aerial systems, and they wanted to make sure they were set with policy and training. There were also some attendees who were interested in the technology, but weren’t looking to actively explore it because of their resources. They were there to gather as much info as they could to take back to their senior leadership to show them that this emerging technology is relevant and useful.”

The variety of users is a great illustration of the types of needs that agencies are tasked with resolving. While almost all of these officials are interested in hearing about success stories and lessons learned, some are ready to move beyond these details. There was a big push to discuss implementation logistics related to issues like Part 107 vs a COA, what it means to have a policy in place for data retention and what to do if someone makes an open record request.

Being able to explore these details goes back to the focus for the CoE itself, since they’re tasked with researching and testing the feasibility of new technology to develop a program that works for those departments. That assistance means something different based on the resources, time and manpower these individual agencies possess, but all of it is ultimately designed to create, shape and develop a vision of how unmanned aerial systems and other technology developments can make an impact.


A Vision of Success

Fire chiefs and senior leadership is excited about UAV technology, and many want to see where people have been successful. Those instances can showcase how drones can be used as successful resources to help save lives.

“I talked to a couple local fire departments in the mountains, and what they said was that it would be great to have one of these UAVs on a river rescue,” Seddon mentioned. “When they have a trapped kayaker, the terrain doesn't allow them to just walk down the river and see everything. Those officials said if they could get one of these platforms to look out and over the river to get that view then it would be efficient, but it would also mean they wouldn't be putting the lives of rescuers in danger.”

These kinds of specific opportunities are the ones that officials are trying to establish, as they provide a definitive vision around terms like “safety” and “efficiency” that are too often casually thrown about. What it means to create safety and efficiency opportunities varies from department to department, especially with many departments that are either very small or comprised of volunteers.

The public’s role in this process is also something that needs to be considered as many professionals have mentioned how their biggest challenges around adoption often come from the public. The CoE supports public agencies reaching out to local high schools to get them engaged in UAS program. If the kids get excited, the parents will as well, which makes it easier to talk about the technology.

colorado center of excellence


A Model State

The CoE is truly a unique program that has and will create opportunities on every side of drone technology. While the agency is primarily focused on helping agencies in Colorado, how they can help officials in other states create a model which could be emulated elsewhere is something that’s already on their mind.

“We’re focused on reducing the risk, cost and effort of developing a meaningful UAS capability for public safety agencies in Colorado,” Seddon said. “That will show others states how this can work. We want to be that model state. We want people to call us because we produce a quality product that others want to emulate.

The excitement around what UAV technology can and will mean for emergency response professionals is very real, but Seddon mentioned that in addition to adoption logistics, having the right steps in place to ensure there aren’t any missteps is important. Officials in these departments don't want to be in the news for anything negligent, so they're very cautious with this emerging technology. They’ve seen the difference it represents though, and that alone is indicative of the tremendous progress that the technology has made in the hearts and minds of these officials.

Change is difficult to implement in just about any ecosystem, but it can be even more difficult when resources and public scrutiny can be active reasons to not pursue any sort of change. As UAV technology emerges, it's great to see that public agencies want to use this technology to make their lives easier and help protect citizens, and it makes the work the CoE is doing to define what that process looks like absolutely critical.