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Flying higher: Drone registration on the rise in North Dakota

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Joshua Ludwin, left, and Michael Pierce of ISight PRV Services, an unmanned aircraft company that is part of the Midwest Drone Group in Grand Forks, test a drone Wednesday west of UND. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 3
Unmanned aircraft pilots Joshua Ludwin, left, and Michael Pierce land a drone during a Wednesday test flight in Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald3 / 3

North Dakota is seeing more registrations for unmanned aircraft pilots and vehicles, and commercial registrations have quadrupled since the federal government released its first list more than a year ago.

It's a sign of how fast interest in the new technology is growing, but experts believe it also shows the industry could become a part of day-to-day life.

"It's going to change our lives like the iPhone," Tom Kenville, president of the Midwest Drone Group in Grand Forks, said of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS.

Almost 1,800 North Dakota residents had registered themselves as hobbyist UAS pilots as of February, the latest numbers available from the Federal Aviation Administration. That's about 530 more than were registered in May 2016, the deadline by which small unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, had to be registered.

The state's non-hobbyist group, or drones that are used for commercial purposes, had a significant jump in the same timeframe—from 46 in May 2016 to 181 in February.

"Registered drone use is rapidly growing, especially in North Dakota," Xcel Energy spokesman Matthew Lindstrom said. "Most people in the state already know about (North Dakota's) national reputation in aviation, its highly skilled workforce and state-of-the-art facilities. This environment is why North Dakota is known as the 'Silicon Valley of drones.' "

Xcel uses drones to inspect electrical grids and transmission lines across the Midwest.

Fargo has the most hobbyist and non-hobbyist registrations in North Dakota with 258 hobbyist owners and 56 non-hobbyist drones. There are 188 hobbyist owners and 41 non-hobbyist drones in Grand Forks. The city ranks third for hobbyist owners behind Fargo and Bismarck (with 224 owners) and second for non-hobbyist drones.

In compliance

Hobbyists only need to register themselves and can have multiple drones under one registration, while non-hobbyists have to register each drone, said Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks.

That means the FAA's list features the number of hobbyist pilots and the number of non-hobbyist drones, so it's hard to know how many drones are being flown in the state.

Names of the people and companies who have registered drones are not considered public records.

Still, it's impressive to see not only the numbers grow but also the locations of the drones, Flom said. He noted registrations come from a wide swath of locations, from larger cities in the east like Fargo to small villages in the west like Fairfield, an unincorporated community in Billings County that has a population of about 100.

He attributed North Dakota's growth to education on drones and the state's capabilities to fly UAS in airspace that has less traffic than most areas.

"North Dakota is one of the most educated states when it comes to unmanned aircraft," he said, adding the state likely has the one of the higher rates of compliance when it comes to flying drones.

It's likely drones are not registered across the U.S. and are not in compliance, but it is hard to know how many, Flom said. The FAA said it had registered more than 770,000 drone owners in the U.S. as of March, but he cited sources stating UAS sales have exceeded 2 million.

Numbers also may have increased because the FAA has laid out more rules that allow commercial companies to apply for exemptions to fly drones. Midwest Drone Group was formed earlier this year after Unmanned Applications Institute International and ISight RPV Services, both of Grand Forks, combined, making it the largest UAS company in Grand Forks, Kenville said.

Kenville said he appreciates the exemptions, but he foresees rules getting tougher, especially with the possibility of having more pilots, drones and, in turn, collisions.

He is concerned about the quality of drones, saying some companies are buying cheaply made UAS.

The FAA also is working on rules that would allow beyond-line-of-sight flights, which will help the industry grow even more, Kenville said. He believes the FAA is going in the right direction in trying to determine the rules and regulations for the drone industry.

"To really blow up the industry, we have to go with beyond line of sight, but we have to do it safely," he said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises 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 a 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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