Weather Forecast


OUR OPINION: GF teaches lessons the FAA can learn

Our view: The growth and success of the UAS industry here is a model for the nation.

There was one story in 2000. There was one story in 1999.

But if you search the Herald’s archives for stories that contain the words “unmanned” and “aircraft,” then you need go back only as far as 1998 before you’ll get this message:

“Sorry. There are no articles that contain all the keywords you entered.”

And as Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta tours Grand Forks’ extensive unmanned aviation infrastructure today, that’s a fact he might want to keep in mind.

The FAA is charged with regulating unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace, and that’s proving to be a gigantic challenge. UAS technology is zipping ahead, so all kinds of applications already are being deployed.

To take just one example, a Minnesota company in February “released a video of a 12-pack of its product being delivered across a frozen lake to a group of ice fishermen by a drone,” The Hill newspaper reported.

But “the FAA was not impressed,” the story continued.

“The agency sent a letter to the company telling the beer-makers to knock it off with the drones.”

This same scenario is playing out in many other venues, including courts, as the FAA tries to enforce its rule that commercial operation of drones is not yet allowed. But the sheer number of drones — many of them model-aircraft sized — and operators is overwhelming the agency, suggesting that clamping the lid on all of U.S. airspace may be an impossible task.

That’s where Grand Forks’ example may help.

Because unmanned aircrafts’ successful evolution here could improve the FAA’s own approach.

Lesson 1 is the need for speed. As mentioned, not one Herald story as recently as 1998 contained the keywords “unmanned” and “aircraft.” That means everything Huerta will or could see today — including UND’s UAS facilities, the Grand Sky site, Grand Forks Air Force Base’s unmanned aircraft and Northland Community and Technical College’s pioneering UAS programs — arose since then.

And much of this development resulted from government action.

Agencies can move fast when they have to, in other words. Now, the FAA has to.

The agency should put UAS rulemaking on the fastest possible track and pour more resources into it, if necessary.

Congress — whose members are feeling the heat from would-be UAS operators back home — might very well approve such a request.

Speaking of Congress, that’s the second lesson of Grand Forks’ example. Huerta will see it if he glances to his left and right:

On one side will be Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican. On the other will be Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat.

There are precious few big issues on which bipartisan agreement is possible. But UAS development is one.

The Obama administration should see that potential and pursue fast, effective and flexible rulemaking as a resounding bipartisan win.

Last but not least, the trait that really sets Grand Forks’ experience apart is teamwork. The region had no UAS presence whatever in 2000. Now, it’s one of the top UAS sites in the world, which is why Huerta is visiting today.

The industry packs such promise that North Dakotans and Minnesotans put all kinds of differences aside to make it work.

And the FAA can leverage this exceptional goodwill. All the agency has to do is ask, and it will find universities, trade groups and countless other professionals across America ready and eager to help.

By focusing so astutely on the UAS industry, farsighted leaders grabbed the Grand Forks economy’s throttle and jammed it forward. By learning from this example, the FAA could help the federal government on a national scale do the same.