An enigma buzzing over Glenwood Springs

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Josh Allison with the Glenwood Springs Fire Department does a test flight with one of the department's four drones at the station in downtown Glenwood.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A drone fleet appears to have been dotting the night sky over Glenwood Springs during the past week or so. But — as with similar activity reported in northeast Colorado in late December — it’s a mystery to local officials as to who might be at the controls and what they’re doing.

“We’re aware that it’s been happening, and have received some calls about it,” Glenwood Springs Police Chief Joseph Deras confirmed. “They appear to be the larger, commercial types of drones.”

Those who have reported seeing blinking lights from the unmanned aircraft in the nighttime hours between about 7 and 10 p.m. say they don’t appear to be doing anything suspicious, the chief said.

“If it were to become an issue, we would reach out to the FAA to try to investigate,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires a special waiver for commercial drone operators to conduct nighttime flights. Hobbyists must have an FAA license to fly a drone, but are limited to daytime hours.

The FAA lists eight current nighttime waivers for companies or operators that have Colorado references in their name.

Among them is the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting unit based out of the Rifle-Garfield County Airport.

But they or any other public entity would typically provide official notice of nighttime operations, and that hasn’t occurred, according to Reed Clawson of the air ambulance helicopter service Classic Air Medical.

Any unofficial drone activity at the lower altitudes within the Glenwood Springs airspace is cause for concern for the medevac helicopter that operates out of Valley View Hospital and the Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport.

“If it’s something official, we’d be in the loop, but we haven’t been notified of anything,” Clawson said. “As hard as those things are to see in the daytime, it’s way more difficult to see them at night. We would appreciate a phone call to let us know they’re operating in the area.”

Unregulated airspace

Glenwood Springs Airport Manager Amy Helm said she hasn’t heard of any drone sightings by pilots or related conflicts.

And, with the exception of Classic Air, which conducts nighttime operations in and out of the facility as necessary for refueling, the airport is limited to daytime hours.

Still, commercial drone operators are required to file a notice with the FAA that they are operating in a particular area, she said.

The rules regarding personal drone use near smaller airports have changed, Helm added.

“Before, people would always call and ask for permission to use drones near our facility. But, because we’re considered uncontrolled airspace, it’s kind of a gray area regarding where people can fly their drones,” she said. “It’s certainly not recommended, but we have no authority to tell them not to.”

Hey, look up there!

One resident who has reported seeing the drones is Michael McCallum. The Oasis Creek resident said he first noticed the blinking red, white and green lights at different locations and at various heights over town from his vantage point high on the hillside above Traver Trail in north Glenwood late last week.

“Some are very high that look like satellites, and others are lower and you can hear them,” he said. “They appear to be flying in straight lines, but no particular pattern.”

McCallum said he saw them again Wednesday night, but the activity seems to be limited to clear, still nights with no wind. And, he said he’s pointed them out to others, including a police officer acquaintance, who affirmed what he was observing.

“It seems like they’re programmed to follow a line, and they don’t vary,” McCallum said.

With the increasing popularity of drones and constant technological advances, rules around both personal and commercial drone use have been the subject of recent public education programs.

In summer 2019, the Glenwood Airport, Rifle Center of Excellence and the Glenwood Springs Fire Department hosted a drone education seminar to discuss safety, regulations, licensing and privacy issues.

Like a lot of firefighting agencies, Glenwood Fire has started using drones for different types of firefighting applications. The Fire Department now has six licensed drone pilots, including Chief Gary Tillotson.

He said the rules are pretty clear about any drone use, but especially at night.

“You can fly at night, but you have to have that waiver from the FAA to do it,” Tillotson said.

And, “military action aside,” all unmanned aircraft are supposed to be in visual control at all times, whether that’s the person directly at the controls, or an observer who is communicating with the pilot.

The department has four of the smaller-platform drones, including three with thermal imaging capability, which is crucial for firefighting work, Tillotson said.

Education opportunity

Josh Allison is an engineer with Glenwood Fire, and also has a private drone photography business, Action Sports Drone, on the side.

Allison said he, too, has heard from others about the nighttime drones over Glenwood, though he hadn’t seen them himself.

He said the activity sounds very similar to what was happening in northeast Colorado late last year. The Denver Post reported on the sightings over Yuma and Phillips counties, which involved multiple drones with 6-foot wingspans flying about 200 feet to 300 feet in the air and following patterns over what appeared to be set, 25-mile-square areas.

Allison said he knows of no hobbyist or commercial pilots in this area who are capable of operating multiple drones at night at different heights. The night waiver process is an involved one, he said.

“For me to get a waiver to fly at night, it takes about 30 days,” he noted, though the fire department and other public agencies can receive special emergency waivers.

The largest allowed commercial drone under FAA regulations is 55 pounds. For comparison, the fire department drones are slightly less than 5 pounds.

The commercial waivers also require that the operator disclose what it is they’re doing. And a single pilot is not supposed to operate multiple drones, Allison said.

But, the FAA doesn’t have the manpower to track and follow all drone activity, commercial or otherwise, so a lot of drones do fly under the radar, so to speak, he said.

“Private industry breaks the rules all the time, and sometimes they don’t even know it,” said Allison, who has built an education component into his own business to help explain the rules to other operators.

“It does make it hard when the rules get broken, because then the FAA tightens down on everybody, and it makes it difficult for me to operate commercially.”