The Federal Aviation Administration Selects North Dakota as UAS Testing Site

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that North Dakota was designated as one of the six test sites for unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

North Dakota was among numerous states competing to host one of the test sites that will assist in research integrating unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft in the national airspace. The state's leadership in UAS operations, research and development, education and training made North Dakota a natural choice for the FAA.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley have led the state's efforts to establish a national UAS test site in North Dakota. The state has invested more than $14 million to advance UAS research and development.

In May, Dalrymple established the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority and appointed Lt. Gov. Wrigley to lead the state's efforts to land a test site and to pursue other UAS opportunities. Following Dalrymple's recommendation, the 63rd Legislative Assembly also supported the state's pursuit of a national UAS test site by appropriating $5 million, with $4 million in operations funding contingent on North Dakota being selected one of six test sites.

"The FAA's decision to locate one of only six national UAS test sites in North Dakota is good news for our state and for the entire nation," Dalrymple said. "We have worked very hard to make sure North Dakota is well positioned for this designation and to make sure that the FAA recognizes the many strengths that we offer in helping to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace. With this test site designation, we have a great opportunity to become a national hub for UAS research and development, to expand our national leadership in aerospace sciences and to further diversify our state economy."

Not only does North Dakota have unencumbered airspace, but the Grand Forks region, where the test site will be established, is also home to a thriving private UAS industry, Grand Forks Air Force Base and the University of North Dakota, which has one of the most established UAS undergraduate programs in the nation. In addition, the state has been extremely proactive in addressing privacy concerns by establishing the nation's first-ever UAS Research Compliance Committee tasked to oversee, review and approve the use of UAS for research at UND.

The Authority includes representatives from the state's general aviation industry, University of North Dakota Aerospace, North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, North Dakota Department of Commerce (NDDOC) and the Office of the Adjutant General.

Robert Becklund, executive director of the Authority, is currently overseeing the efforts of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site and will direct the activities associated with the Test Site.

"We are thrilled that the FAA has chosen our state as one of the test sites," said Becklund. "And while we have worked diligently to ensure that North Dakota's UAS capabilities were well known by key decision makers, our work has only just begun."

Now that North Dakota has been chosen, Becklund's next task is to ensure that the state meets the needs and expectations of the FAA while ensuring that the state's efforts do not interfere with existing commercial and general aviation operations in the United States.

Members of the Authority have already moved forward with preparations that include identifying research projects centered on key UAS focal areas for the FAA such as UAS System Safety, UAS Aircraft Certification, Command and Control (C2) Link Issues, Control Station Layout and Certification, and Ground & Airborne Sense and Avoid. Additionally, the Authority is in the process of identifying necessary infrastructure for the site as well as communicating the business benefits of working in North Dakota including tax incentives and research support to companies all across the nation.

"Throughout this entire process our message has been consistent - that picking North Dakota, would benefit the national effort to safely integrate UAS into our airspace," said Becklund. "The fact that we were chosen as a test site underscores the confidence the FAA has in us and we won't let them down."

While UAS have recently been in the news related to this month's announcement from Amazon that the company would eventually like to distribute packages by UAS technologies, Becklund mentioned that other industries outside of logistics will benefit from the testing and eventual integration.

"In addition to agricultural surveying, exploring areas affected by natural disasters and helping with search and rescue efforts, the safe integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace will lead to a wide variety of other commercial applications," Becklund said. "Unmanned aircraft have the potential to be less expensive and more efficient than manned aircraft in many instances."

Becklund added that the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department and the Grand Forks Police Department already operate a handful of UAS tactics in partnership with the university. So far the departments have used the UAS in research projects surrounding search and rescue and assessing traffic congestion patterns.

Officials in North Dakota expect to work in close collaboration with the other FAA test sites located in New York, Alaska, Virginia, Texas and Nevada as well as all other states, universities, industries and government agencies associated with UAS to ensure that the integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace systems is done safely.


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