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Grand Forks Sheriff's Department can fly unmanned aircraft in Cass County

During a search for missing persons or a major natural disaster, Cass County residents may now see unmanned aircraft overhead.

The Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department recently received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aircraft there if requested by Cass County law enforcement.

While the department has permission from the FAA, it also sought the blessing of UND's Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research and Compliance Committee, which vets unmanned aircraft research proposals and discusses related policy.

"It would be more streamlined and easier for us to go down and help Cass County," said Al Frazier, a sheriff's deputy and UND professor.

The FAA altered the department's certificate of authorization, a document that grants it permission to fly in designated areas and under certain conditions, instead of having it submit a new one.

"I thought that was a very favorable response from the FAA," Frazier said.

The committee unanimously approved the request, with Frazier, a member of the committee, recusing himself from the vote.

The move expands the number of North Dakota counties the department's UAS unit can operate in to 17. The counties are located in the state's northeastern portion. Cass would be the southernmost county.

The department's UAS unit began as a research project under the research compliance committee, but will become independent on Aug. 1. While under the committee's purview, the unit has six mission types it can fly unmanned aircraft for, including search for missing persons or suspects, photograph crime scenes and assess natural disasters scenes.

The unit can launch in other North Dakota and Minnesota counties using an emergency certificate of authorization.

Frazier said it usually takes about an hour and a half to get an emergency COA from the FAA.

Most recently, the department sought an emergency waiver so it could fly over the scene of a home explosion in Minnesota's Beltrami County.