It’s been a big year for North Dakota’s unmanned aerial systems industry.

The state was one of six in the nation awarded an unmanned aircraft test site last year with the designation of being the first operational site following this past April.

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Now about six months into its operation, Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft System Test Site staff says the phone is ringing off the hook with parties interested in its offerings. The test site is headquartered in Grand Forks but includes the entire state.

“A lot of industries are coming to us wanting to be able to advance technologies,” Julie Theisen, the test site’s director of business and program management, said at the Economic Development Association of North Dakota conference last week.

With a foundation for research and development in place, test site partners statewide are looking forward to what the industry’s future will bring to the state.

“We’re out trying to solicit companies,” said Terry Sando, UAS sector senior manager for the Grand Fork Economic Development Corporation. “We’re out there talking to other countries right now trying to bring their systems in … we’re making some pretty good progress.”

In the coming year, a UAS business park is expected to break ground, legislators will push for quicker processes for getting aircraft flight certified and new uses for the technology will continue to develop.  

It’s also a future that is filled with uncertainty as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to develop regulations for integrating unmanned aircraft into national airspace at a pace many in and outside the industry find unsatisfactory.

“I get that their mission is safety but we’ve got to move forward,” U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said. “UAS is coming. There are many different applications, many different uses that people want. This industry is moving ahead of the FAA.”

Research progress

The FAA unmanned systems test sites exist in part to research the safe integration of UAS into airspace.

Since the North Dakota site became operational, some research projects have taken flight.

Missions to gather data on crops and wildlife populations began over the summer after receiving approval from the UND Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Compliance Committee.

The committee approves all research being conducted by the university and others falling under the purview of the Northern Plain System Authority, the state body that oversees the test site.  

The potential uses of unmanned technology could have an impact on industries across the state, Brian Opp, manager of aerospace development for the state Department of Commerce, told EDAND conference attendees.

“This industry is one that possesses the potential to diversify our economy and to really pack a punch,” Opp said. “It’s got the attention of the leadership in this state.”

Conservative estimates from various industry groups put the potential economic impact of UAS in the United States at up to $91 billion in the next decade.

The North Dakota projects are just two examples of sectors where researchers want to explore uses of unmanned aircraft. Others that have contacted test site staff include representatives of transportation, energy and healthcare firms, according to Theisen.

In order to legally fly unmanned aircraft, entities must either hold a certificate of authorization or be granted an exemption by the FAA. Commercial use of the aircraft is otherwise banned.

Growing hub

Once construction is complete, interested UAS parties have the potential to set up shop in Grand Sky.

The 217-acre UAS business park is planned for a parcel of land on Grand Forks Air Force Base. Negotiations on a lease between the Air Force and Grand Fork County are still in the works.

The park would be the first of its kind in the country, according to Thomas Swoyer Jr., principal of Texas-based Grand Sky Development Co.,  which will rent the land from the county to build the business park.

The park would feature a number of buildings constructed to suit with usable space likely ranging from 40,000 to 100,000 square feet depending on the tenant’s needs. Industry giant Northrop Grumman committed to being its anchor tenant through a letter of intent announced last Wednesday.

Swoyer said he wants the park to serve as an industry hub for the entire state.

“If Grand Sky can be a place where these companies can get together and collaborate, work together and have the physical facilities necessary to be able to try new things, then it’ll be a home run,” he said.

Another asset to the state’s UAS industry being explored is a sensor development range, which could allow customers to test the capabilities of sensors used on UAS and other robotics in a variety of conditions.

“We can provide an environment that isn’t artificially made with extreme heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter,” Sando said.

The feasibility of the project is still being explored by Grand Forks County and other partners, with plans to pursue a study that would give a better idea of potential costs.

Pushing forward

When it comes to the test site’s current potential, legislators think more could be done.

Hoeven, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and several others representing test site states recently wrote FAA Director Michael Huerta to request expedited processes for test site COA applications.

The group says the current system is holding back research that could be conducted on test sites - research that could be integral to safely integrating unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace.  

“These delays force those manufacturers and operators who play by the rules to sit on the sidelines while they wait for approval while others chance fines and operate without any certification from the FAA, which raises serious concerns about public safety,” the senators wrote.

The group goes on to say it fears the FAA will miss its September 2015 integration deadline.