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North Dakota Gets FAA Approval to Fly Drones Over People

The Federal Aviation Administration granted the North Dakota Department of Transportation a four-year waiver to fly unmanned aircraft systems, otherwise known as drones, over people in the state.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has granted the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) a four-year waiver allowing unmanned aircraft systems to be flown over people. The waiver is another step in the state’s goal to achieve a statewide UAS air traffic control network.

The drone series given the go-ahead to fly above residents’ heads is the DJI Mavic 2 equipped with a ParaZero SafeAir parachute recovery system. The SafeAir sits atop the drone and uses its own set of sensors to monitor flight data for signs of critical failure, at which point the deployment of a parachute and a buzzer to warn people to move out of harm’s way is triggered, according to ParaZero’s website.

North Dakota is one of 10 participants in the nationwide UAS Integration Pilot Program. The initiative enables agencies to work with the U.S. Department of Transportation and FAA to establish new uses for drones, according to a NDDOT press release.

Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, said the waiver will help in the deployment of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) technology, which the test site is currently tackling.

“This type of waiver will contribute to the package that will be needed for BVLOS approval,” Flom told Government Technology. “Ultimately, this waiver showed us that through third-party testing, a parachute can be used as a mitigatory for operations over people in a very repeatable fashion.”

He said the waiver also prepares NDDOT and other statewide entities for the deployment of BVLOS in the near future.

James Leiman, director of economic development and finance in the state Department of Commerce, said the deployment of the statewide air traffic control network is dependent on FAA permissions. Leiman said his department is excited about the recent permission granted by the federal agency.

“As the FAA releases additional use cases for BVLOS, North Dakota will be able to expand the network into areas served by the use case thereby leading to faster deployment of BVLOS operations in the state of North Dakota,” he said. “As such, we are working with the FAA to encourage additional decisions like this as each waiver gets the state and UAS industry to the finish line faster.”

He said to ensure the state is on the cutting edge of drone usage and technology a group with a lead from the NDDOT, his team, Flom and the university system work in tandem to achieve the best results, based on each member’s area of expertise.

The partnership between the NDDOT and Northern Plains UAS Test Site aims to find operational efficiencies, grow the UAS industry within the state, and reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries, according to a press release.

NDDOT UAS Integration Program Administrator Russ Buchholz said in the release that his department is excited to work with the test site and ParaZero to further explore possible deployments of drones.

“We are testing UAS systems and looking at how we can have safe operations that are repeatable and scalable in different types of situations,” Buchholz said.

Gov. Doug Burgum issued a statement this week after the announcement of the NDDOT waiver. Burgum said the ability to fly UAS over North Dakotans strengthens his state’s position as the leading proving ground for drones.

“This waiver acknowledges the excellent work that NDDOT and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site are doing with public and private partners to ensure that unmanned aircraft are [safely] integrated into the national airspace, at the same time attracting new technology, jobs and businesses to our state,” he said in a release from his office.

The Legislature approved $28 million in April to pursue a statewide network, as well as $2 million to support test site operations and $3 million to upgrade infrastructure at the Grand Sky business development park.

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.