FAA taps Grand Forks for unmanned aerial systems testing
By John Hageman
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Grand Forks will be one of the country’s six test sites for unmanned aerial systems, North Dakota’s congressional delegation and governor’s office announced Monday.
The sites will allow for policies, safety procedures and the technology itself to be developed and tested before the Federal Aviation Administration integrates UAS, commonly referred to as drones, into the national airspace alongside manned aircraft. Congress has mandated that happen by 2015.
The news is a boost for efforts to establish the state and Grand Forks as a hub for UAS development. Several federal, state and local officials celebrated the news in a press conference Monday afternoon on the University of North Dakota campus.
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who authored the legislation to establish the six test sites last year, said he’s always been confident North Dakota would be chosen. He touted local UAS initiatives like the Center for UAS Research, Education and Training at UND, which received a $2.5 million grant through a program he established as governor.
“We’ve really put all the elements in place to be the premier center,” he said in a phone interview. “But it would be much harder to continue to build the Grand Forks region as one of the key centers if we weren’t one of the six places in the country where you could fly manned and unmanned aircraft in the same airspace.”
“So this was critical for us,” he added.
There were 25 applicants from 24 states vying for the FAA designation. The University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, Texas A&M University, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University were the other winning applications. The FAA took into account factors like geography, climate, research needs, airspace use, and aviation experience.
Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, said the FAA legislation requires at least one test site be up and running within 180 days. He added that North Dakota has somewhat of a head start, because the state Legislature has already appropriated $5 million to its UAS test site efforts, $4 million of which is now available because of the FAA designation.
The Air Force announced in October it intended to sign a lease with Grand Forks County to establish a UAS tech park at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. County commissioners chose a developer for the Grand Sky project later that month.
Grand Forks County Commissioner John Schmisek said Monday’s announcement will likely increase interest among those looking to set up operations at the park. Hoeven said Northrop Grumman Corp., a major defense and aerospace technology company, is currently negotiating lease terms with the Grand Sky developer.
“This was very much on their mind,” Hoeven said of Northrop Grumman.
Local leaders expect UAS technology to be useful in precision agriculture, such as gathering data on crops, as well as for law enforcement agencies and energy companies. The technology made national headlines earlier this month when Amazon announced it was looking into delivering packages using small unmanned helicopters — though some derided that plan as infeasible and others said the announcement amounted to a publicity stunt.
But local leaders say UAS has real economic potential. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International projects that UAS will create more than 100,000 jobs nationwide and have an economic impact of more than $82 billion in the first decade following integration.
Bruce Gjovig, director of the Center for Innovation at UND, said he anticipates seeing increased testing and demonstration next year and a shift toward more commercial applications in 2015.
“It’s going to grow slowly,” he said. “The FAA is going to, and should, insist on safe demonstration.”
Monday’s announcement will likely stoke an ongoing debate on UAS technology’s potential effects on privacy. A bill requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using unmanned craft failed during the previous state legislative session, as some raised concerns it would affect the state’s bid to become a UAS test site.
Steven Morrison, a UND law professor and a proponent of the legislation, said the bill was “a good introductory regulation on a new technology that a ton of people … are concerned with.”
Drew Wrigley, North Dakota lieutenant governor, said the UAS Research Compliance Committee at UND, which reviews proposals before they take flight, is an example of a proactive measure North Dakota has taken to address privacy concerns.
But Monday, the state’s congressional delegation was focused on the economic boon the news could mean for North Dakota. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., applauded local and state officials for putting together a winning proposal.
“Grand Forks earned it,” Heitkamp said in a phone interview. “I was extremely proud to represent and argue for that proposal.”