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Sheriff: Super Bowl gets nighttime drone flight approval, Grand Forks County still waiting six months later

UND's and Minnesota's during their first round playoff game at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks Friday. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 3
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The Grand Forks County sheriff wants to know why the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t approved a waiver for law enforcement to fly drones anywhere in the country while it took only weeks to give a company permission to fly drones for the Super Bowl Halftime Show.

Deputy Al Frazier planned to ask FAA Administrator Michael Huerta Monday morning in Dallas during a panel discussion on unmanned aircraft to give priority to emergency responders when it came to approving waivers to fly drones for commercial purposes. Particularly, Frazier wanted the FAA to approve a waiver submitted by his agency more than six months ago to fly drones at night anywhere in the country.

“During the daytime, we can fly anywhere in the nation,” Sheriff Bob Rost said. “All of our pilots are FAA-certified pilots. They are not amateurs flying UAS.”

The panel was part of the Helicopter Association International’s Heli-Expo, which is being held this week in Dallas to educate the public on integrating unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, into national airspace, according to a news release.

Grand Forks County is home to the Northeast Region Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit, which is staffed by members of the Grand Forks Police Department, the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, the UND Police Department and the Cass County Sheriff’s Department.

The unit has permission from the FAA to operate drones at night for three years in 18 counties in northeast North Dakota, though Rost said his department may be called to other parts of the country to assist other agencies that may need the agency’s drone unit.

He gave the Dakota Access Pipeline protests as an example. The department was called to help the Morton County Sheriff’s Department in recent months to help with law enforcement. Since the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department does not have the exemption, it could not fly its drones at night in central North Dakota.

Rost said his department has contacted the FAA numerous times but has not heard a response regarding the request. Huerta did not speak during the panel, FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory told the Herald, but an FAA speaker took Frazier’s information and promised to research the issue.

Rost called the delays “inordinate and inappropriate” and criticized the FAA for approving a request by technology giant Intel to fly 300 drones for the the Super Bowl Halftime Show in February. The drones had LED lights that created illuminated designs for Lady Gaga’s performance.

Intel needed permission from the FAA to fly the drones above the NRG Stadium in Houston, sometimes at 700 feet above ground. Rost said in his statement it took less than six weeks to process and approve the flight.

The part involving the drones was pre-recorded at night.

The approval of the flight during Lady Gaga’s pre-recorded performance sends a message that “the Super Bowl halftime entertainment is more important than public safety,” Rost said.

“We’re talking a public safety issue versus a show,” he said. “It is hard for me to comprehend how public safety could be perceived as less important than the entertainment industry.”

Rost said he hopes the FAA will prioritize public safety, especially for law enforcement agencies that choose to go the extra mile, such as having their pilots FAA-certified.

“We are doing this thing the right way,” he said of the drone unit. “We just don’t joke around with it. It is a very serious thing for us.”

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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