A drone for loan? North Dakota agency eager to help

A drone rises into a gray sky.
A drone rises into a gray sky in December 2015 near Fargo, N.D.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

A drone for loan? One of the first law enforcement agencies to use unmanned aircraft as eyes in the sky says it's ready to ship its technology anywhere in the country to help police who need it.

The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month authorized the Northeast Region Unmanned Aircraft System unit in Grand Forks to fly anywhere in the country. It is one of only a handful of law enforcement groups with the capability of responding to incidents like natural disasters, crime scenes or search-and-rescue missions.

Alan Frazier, the chief pilot and architect of the unmanned aircraft program for the Grand Forks unit, said the agency's pilots and sensor operators are able and willing to hop on a plane with its drone in a suitcase.

"If there was a major disaster or a multi-day search for dangerous suspects like that, my guess is that the sheriff would approve that," Frazier said.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Ben Miller, a board member of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and founder of the drone program for the Mesa County Sheriff's Department in Colorado, said the Grand Forks pilots would be at the top of the list when help is needed elsewhere. The county is also home to one of six drone test sites in the U.S. and the nation's first unmanned aircraft tech park.

"I think I can very confidently say that Grand Forks and Mesa counties lead the country in the use of UAVs in law enforcement," Miller said. "Grand Forks has done some fantastic things. I know those guys. I've trained those guys."

Grand Forks also is unique, Miller said, because the group has four pilots who have their commercial licenses. That allows them to fly drones at night and operate in airspace that is restricted to non-rated pilots, such as the vicinity of airports. Grand Forks is one of two state agencies in the country approved to fly drones at night, along with Montgomery County in Texas.

Frazier said his group also makes numerous appearances at training seminars and conferences throughout the country and the FAA authorization permits them to give practical demonstrations.

"That's important, because if we can't get the information out to agencies that might want to use the technology, they're really not going to avail themselves of that opportunity," Frazier said.

The FAA website lists 74 government agencies that are authorized to fly nationwide. That includes 17 state law enforcement departments in a dozen states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Oregon, Texas, Maryland, Ohio, Texas, Washington and North Dakota.

The Grand Forks crew previously had the OK to fly within 17 North Dakota counties in eastern North Dakota and one Minnesota county. Since 2013 the group has responded to 27 calls for service, including the collection of evidence for four homicides. It has helped police look for numerous victims and suspects, including the search for a missing hunter whose body was found in nearby Walsh County.

"It is a very multi-faceted tool that we have at our disposal," Grand Forks Sheriff's Lt. B.J. Maxson said. "It is just absolutely incredible to see the aircraft go."

Frazier said it's too early to tell whether the Grand Forks unit will be called on more for training or the real thing.

"We'll have to take a wait and see attitude on that," he said.