A state aerial firefighting research facility in Rifle is getting a new building where small drones can be flown indoors.

Garfield County commissioners have approved a $331,450 contract with Kuersten Construction, LLC, for construction of the building at the Rifle Garfield County Airport. That’s where Colorado’s Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting is housed, under a lease agreement with the county that last year was extended for 10 years.

The center will oversee drone training in the roughly 7,000-square-foot, 45-foot-high, fabric-covered, metal-frame drone facility. It will contain a flight qualification course allowing for testing public safety drone pilots on basic operating skills, Garfield County said in a news release. The drone facility will be incorporated into the existing lease.

Pilots will be able to use the facility to obtain Department of Homeland Security, U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, and American Society for Testing and Materials International Standard Test Methods certificates.

The indoor facility will allow for year-round pilot evaluations, regardless of weather conditions.

“The Colorado Department of Public Safety is committed to professional small (unmanned aircraft system) operations and this facility, the first of its kind in the state, supports that mission,” Ben Miller, director of the Center of Excellence, said in a news release. “We appreciate the partnership that Garfield County continues to provide.”

“We’re looking forward to having the small UAS facility at the airport,” Airport Director Brian Condie said in the release.

The Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting came to be as a result of 2014 legislation sponsored by former state Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. Miller became its director last year, following work that included running the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office drone program.

The center has been working on a variety of technologies addressing aviation, communication and other aspects of wildland firefighting. It’s part of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control.

An open house to highlight the new drone facility and the work being done by the center is being scheduled to be held once the facility is finished later this year.

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