Colorado’s energy, attributes attract unmanned systems industry



When Canada’s Aeryon Labs decided to set up a separate defense-focused company so it could work with the U.S. military on unmanned systems programs, it quickly settled on Colorado — and specifically Denver — as home for the new Aeryon Defense, which just launched on Feb. 1.
Tom Jackson, a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer and AH-1W Super Cobra pilot who is the company’s vice president and general manager, was already in the area, as were other employees who formed the nucleus of the new venture.
Beyond that, however, the state and city offered some unique attributes. Colorado is very centrally located, so it’s easier for the company to support multiple time zones and for company officials to travel to defense facilities around the country.
And while many of the state’s big defense contractors set up shop in the suburbs of Denver, Aeryon Defense decided to dive right into the heart of it, opening its office just a few blocks from the convention center and right off the 16th Street Mall.
“We started looking downtown, and the energy of the city is something that matched the energy of our company,” says Jackson.
It doesn’t hurt that Aeryon is also able to tap into the academic environment, which includes the University of Colorado at Boulder and its powerhouse engineering program, and the Air Force Academy in nearby Colorado Springs.
“Denver’s a fast-growing city, we’re a fast-growing company, and we’re able to attract that talent that fits our culture,” Jackson says.
It’s the same sort of vibe that drew AUVSI to host its annual conference and exhibition in Denver in 2010, and which is bringing it back with Xponential this year, April 30-May 3, at the Colorado Convention Center.

Pushing the needle
Colorado has been attempting to “push the needle” on unmanned systems and related technology for years now, says Ben Miller, director of the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, who also previously worked for the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office to create their drone program.
“It’s a very open, ‘is that possible’ type culture,” Miller says. “It’s a very progressive culture, the entire state.”
There’s a lot of young growth in the industry, driven by the local universities. The University of Colorado, Boulder is home to the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles, or RECUV, a partnership of academia, government and industry dedicated to developing unmanned systems technology.
The University of Denver established the Unmanned Systems Research Institute, known as DU2SRI, back in 2012, which is primarily aimed at developing “the next generation of UAS that will be used for a wide spectrum of civil/public domain applications,” according to its website.

"The workfoce is highly technical," says Mark Gordon, president and CEO of Boulder-based Stratom, which builds robotic ground vehicles and provides related technology and services. "The unemployment rate is extremely low."

The state had enough going on in the field that it put in a credible bid to get an FAA UAS Test Site, and although that didn’t work out, work on unmanned systems in the state has only increased.
AUVSI’s Rocky Mountain Chapter is based in the state, as is UAS Colorado, which grew out of the bid for the FAA UAS Test Site. Both are nonprofit advocacy organizations committed to promoting the industry in the state.
The state also established the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, which is part of the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The center conducts research on drones related to firefighting and handles UAS for the whole department.
“From a state government perspective, we are really the lead,” said Miller, who directs the center.

Gordon says Colorado is attracting unmanned systems and robotics companies because the state is helping promote them to grow the economy.
“There are a lot of different things happening here, with aerial companies, unmanned ground vehicle providers and pure robotics companies,” he says, “VC [venture capital] and small businesses, primarily.”

The state has identified high tech and defense as big potential drivers of its economy, he says, and it's important enough to the state that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is addressing Xponential on the final day, when the theme is "unmanned systems for good."

Numerous unmanned systems-related companies call Colorado home, and nearly four dozen of them will be exhibiting at Xponential, ranging from Aerobotic Geophysical Systems LLC to Ximea Corp. Many will be part of the Colorado Pavilion, one of eight state pavilions that will be on the show floor. 
“There’s an incredible energy,” says Aeryon’s Jackson, and Miller agrees.
“It’s a culture that’s open to trying new things.”

The Denver skyline. Photo: iStock/f11photo