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Hoeven: Securing role in future of UAS industry

By Sen. John Hoeven

This week, I joined Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to announce that North Dakota and the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Test Site in Grand Forks have been selected for the Federal Aviation Administration's Drone Integration Pilot Program.

We've worked hard over the past year to highlight the unique strengths of our UAS industry to the administration and advance this opportunity for our state, including hosting Secretary Chao in Fargo for the Drone Focus conference last year and maintaining regular contact with her and FAA Acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell since the program was launched. As part of this program, North Dakota will lead the way in demonstrating the safe operation of UAS throughout our airspace, the first state to do so. North Dakota's Department of Transportation, the test site and our UAS industry will conduct operations across the state, putting North Dakota at the forefront of integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, providing regulatory certainty for UAS operators and ensuring privacy concerns are addressed. That means our state will continue to be a leader in aviation technology and the jobs of the future.

This opportunity follows a long history of our efforts to secure our state's position as a leader in UAS research, development, operations and training. It began in 2005, when we first worked with the Air Force and the National Guard to bring UAS missions to Grand Forks and Fargo. We quickly followed up by establishing the Center of Excellence for UAS Research, Education and Training at the University of North Dakota, the first collegiate degree program of its kind in the nation. We continued to invest in the Centers of Excellence program, which I initiated as governor, focusing on efforts to integrate UAS into the NAS, establish an Enhanced Use Lease at the Grand Forks Air Force Base and apply to host a national UAS test site.

In the U.S. Senate, we've further advanced these priorities. Among other things, our efforts have included:

■ Introducing legislation which passed in 2012 to create the six national UAS test sites.

■ Building the team that crafted North Dakota's test site proposal, which was approved by the FAA in 2013.

■ Hosting companies such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics in Grand Forks in a bid to establish a UAS business and technology park adjacent to the Grand Forks AFB, now known as Grand Sky.

■ Funding an FAA Center of Excellence for UAS research and development, which is co-led by UND.

■ Upgrading the digital radar systems at the Grand Forks AFB and Hector Field in Fargo, essential for beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations.

■ Securing BVLOS authorization for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

■ Maintaining Customs and Border Protection's UAS operations and training facility at the Grand Forks AFB.

■ Allowing the National Guard to train UAS pilots through civilian contractors, like those at Grand Sky, if the Air Force cannot provide timely training.

These accomplishments have set our state ahead of the pack in the UAS field, and we are working to maintain our competitive edge by pursuing the next big developments in this sector: low-altitude BVLOS applications, UAS detection/counter-UAS technologies and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's unmanned traffic management system. These technologies are central to the future of the UAS industry, and our inclusion in the FAA pilot program has reinforced our role as a leader in these efforts.

John Hoeven, a Republican, represents North Dakota in the United States Senate.