HomeLafayette company gets FAA approval to fly drone prototype for search and rescue missions

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LAFAYETTE, Colo. – A Lafayette company is developing a drone that could be used in long rescue flights and even drop supplies to stranded hikers.

Reference Technologies started developing a rescue drone after the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office expressed a need to the company’s founder, Allen Bishop. Bishop said most drones are battery powered, which limits the time they can stay in the air. The company’s drone, the “Hummingbird,” theoretically can spend up to six hours in the air and fly 300 miles roundtrip.

“We can send this up, drop them a radio, drop them a gallon of water, drop them splint, a first aid kit and let them get through the night,” Bishop said.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently approved the drone for testing in an 8,000 square mile space in the San Luis Valley, after putting a 15,000 feet height limit on those tests. The drone has an estimated altitude limit of 13,000 feet.

Bishop said the drone can carry four different types of cameras, including infrared, and a maximum payload of 20 pounds which could be detached to help victims of snake bites, falls or other accidents in remote areas.

“This has the ability to take off from this parking lot, fly to Coors Field, land on the pitchers mound, drop off a dozen baseballs as an example, lift off, and come back home fully autonomously without a pilot touching the controls,” Bishop said.

It’s certainly not a toy and carries a price tag in the hundreds of thousands. But the eight-feet wide, 135 pound drone is one of the first of its kind that can perform missions like this.

One of the reasons FAA approval is important is there are some pretty big restrictions on drones heavier than 55 pounds. The only outdoors flights the Hummingbird has been able to do are short flights with a heavy fishing line tether that acts as a kind of leash for the aircraft.

At this point it is unclear when the drone will be ready for field missions. However, testing in the San Luis Valley starts in December.