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FAA picks North Dakota as drone test site

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North Dakota has been involved in unmanned aircraft research for nearly a decade. This small drone is used by law enforcement in the Grand Forks area.
Dan Gunderson / MPR News File

North Dakota will host one of six unmanned aircraft test sites in the U.S. researching ways to safely fly drones in the national airspace, the Federal Aviation Administration said Monday. 

The designation will bring industry and jobs to the state, North Dakota officials said. 

"We're excited about it," said North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, who chairs the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Authority that led the effort to secure a test site in North Dakota. 

While it's tough to pin a dollar figure on the potential economic benefit, "it's enormous and the future is very bright," Wrigley added.

North Dakota has been involved in unmanned aircraft research for nearly a decade. The University of North Dakota offered the first unmanned aircraft college degree in the nation. The state has already established an unmanned aircraft research and development facility on land near Grand Forks. Drone manufacturer Northrop Grumman is the first tenant.

The FAA test site designation will increase the state's drone activity, said Wrigley. In its FAA application, the state estimated the test site would create at least 240 new high skills, high paying jobs by 2016. Northwestern Minnesota should also benefit.

Drones will be allowed to fly in a large test area in northeastern North Dakota. The FAA did not provide funding with the test site designation. However North Dakota has set aside $4 million to start operations and future funding is expected to come from the aviation industry and the federal government. 

There are significant safety challenges to overcome before unmanned aircraft can fly in the common airspace with traditional planes, said FAA administrator Michael Huerta. 

Each test site will focus on technical challenges or training practices. Those include "ensuring that unmanned aircraft can detect and avoid other aircraft and that they operate safely if they lose the link to their pilot," Huerta said. "We also need to address pilot training requirements and that's why developing additional research data from the test sites is so important."

The other sites are in Alaska, Nevada, New York, Virginia and Texas. 

The FAA plans to slowly integrate drones into the national airspace. The first step will allow them for some specific uses, perhaps in agriculture or law enforcement. Then, as technology advances, more unmanned craft will be allowed in the air. 

Proposed rules for small unmanned aircraft use will be released early next year, Huerta said.

The North Dakota site will research technology that allows unmanned aircraft to safely sense and avoid other aircraft.  They will test aircraft in a variety of weather conditions and they will help develop pilot training requirements. 

All of the test sites must develop privacy policies about how any data they collect will be stored and used, to protect the privacy of civilians in the area.

By law, the first test site must be operational within six months.

It will take years to assure all unmanned aircraft can operate safely in the skies, said Al Palmer, who directs the University of North Dakota Unmanned Aircraft Center for Excellence. 

"You know the old saying you're going to crawl, you're going to walk, you're going to run?" he asked. "This is a marathon, not necessarily a sprint." 

Minnesota applied for a test site but was not selected. Still the state will benefit from the North Dakota designation. 

Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls has an unmanned aircraft maintenance program and a training program for analysts who study video collected by drones. 

"Minnesota is right on the top of the list," said Palmer, noting that Northland is part of the university's unmanned aircraft center. "They're a teammate. So, one team, one fight, we're going to bring them with us."