The announcement Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta stopped in Grand Forks to make Monday was one stakeholders in North Dakota’s growing unmanned aircraft systems industry have been waiting months to hear.

“Today, the FAA is granting the first authorization in the United States to allow a test site to start flying unmanned aircraft,” Huerta told a group gathered in UND’s Odegard Hall. “And that test site is right here in North Dakota.

The test site will be overseen by the Northern Plains Unmanned Air Systems authority and provide a place to research integration of UAS into general airspace, which is mandated for 2015.

The test site also would explore civilian uses and help craft certification requirements for unmanned aircraft, also known as drones.

Bob Becklund, head of the state’s UAS authority, said the test site’s personnel and basic infrastructure are already in place.

“We are ready. We’ve been working hard since our selection in December to be prepared,” he said. “We plan to start flying here in early May.”

The FAA was required to have at least one test site up and running 180 days after announcing its selections. North Dakota’s test site and five others in Alaska, New York, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, are projected to operate until early 2017.

“North Dakota has really taken a leadership role in supporting unmanned aircraft,” Huerta said. “I look forward to the great contributions this state is going to make.”

Research use

Before unmanned aircraft can take off, North Dakota’s test site must pass a compliance check, according to Becklund.

If given the green light, the Draganflyer X4ES — small helicopter-like UAS — will take to the skies. Its first missions won’t focus on human surveillance but rather on agriculture and ecology.

At a North Dakota State University’s Research Extension Center near Carrington, N.D., the aircraft will monitor crop conditions and soil quality.

Later this summer, it will be used to generate population counts of deer, elk and bison at the Sullys Hill game preserve south of Devils Lake.

“North Dakota is a perfect spot for our nation to develop UAS technology and procedures, and help unleash the economic potential of this promising industry,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

In Minnesota, Northland Community & Technical College was approved last week for a certificate of authorization to fly unmanned aircraft in Roseau County.

Those aircraft also will be used for agricultural research on farmland, according to Northland staff.

The collaboration on UAS research initiatives between the two states will give North Dakota’s test site a leg up on the others, according to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.

“This truly is a two-state test site,” he said. “Right out of the blocks that gives us a huge advantage.”

Privacy concerns

Huerta and others acknowledged the launch of the test site’s research projects could feed concerns surrounding drones’ potential to invade residents’ privacy.

Creating privacy requirements was part of the test site application, according to Huerta. Applicants crafted a privacy policy that complies with local, state and federal privacy laws. The policy also must be available to the public and updated annually.

“The FAA has not traditionally regulated the use of anything. We regulate that it can be flown safely, but we don’t say that you can fly this airplane from here to there,” Huerta said. “Personally, I think we’d be terrible at regulating privacy, it’s not in our wheelhouse, it’s not something we understand how to do.”

Creating regulations and limits for drone use eventually would fall to lawmakers and courts.

Despite some of these concerns, North Dakota has spent $14 million advancing UAS research and development, according to Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

“This could turn into a very big deal for our state,” he added.

Of that amount, $5 million was dedicated to support the launch of Grand Sky, a UAS tech park planned for Grand Forks Air Force Base. Aerospace company Northrop Grumman has already committed to being an anchor tenant for the facility.

The state’s financial investment combined with a high ethical standard for UAS research set by entities such as UND’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Compliance Committee, could attract other businesses, according to several speakers.

“The private sector will look at this example and say ‘This is where we want to invest, this is where we want to create jobs, this is where we want to open our next business,’” said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

© 2014 the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, N.D.)