BISMARCK — The Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department has received federal approval to operate drones over people, a development the agency says could help law enforcement agencies statewide.

The department announced the four‐year authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration on Monday, Aug. 12, saying it’s the first law enforcement agency in North Dakota and only the second county law enforcement agency in the nation to receive such permission.

It was granted Aug. 5. A list provided by the FAA shows that the North Dakota Highway Patrol received permission two days later. The patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The sheriff’s department can now operated unmanned aircraft systems over urban areas in which people live or gather. Since the agency launched its drone program about a year ago, officers have been able to use drones only in rural areas, according to Deputy Tom Schroeder. A recent example he offered is when the department helped out after a rural highway washed out during heavy rain on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, leading to two deaths.

"If we have to operate within the city of Bismarck, that's where this waiver is really going to come into play for us," Schroeder said. "We can fly over people to conduct business. We can fly over a park, we can fly over a golf course, things like that."

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The sheriff's department also can help out fellow law enforcement agencies within the state's borders if there is an incident in which a drone needs to be flown over populated areas.

“This waiver will not only enhance efforts in Burleigh County but also statewide,” Schroeder said.

The department has five drones used in planning, crash reconstruction, emergency response, pursuit of fleeing suspects and documentation of crime scenes. The drone that will be used to fly over people is equipped with a parachute recovery system designed by ParaZero SafeAir, an Israeli company. If a drone fails, the system shuts down the rotors, deploys a parachute and emits a buzzer to warn bystanders below.

"As the first law enforcement agency to secure a … waiver, their achievement paves the way for other agencies as well," Avi Lozowick, ParaZero vice president of policy and strategy, said in a statement.

The federal permission for the sheriff’s department is part of the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s Integration Pilot Program. The department was selected last year as one of 10 participants nationwide for the program aimed at helping the FAA safely integrate drones into the national airspace. The department has billed the program as an opportunity for state, local and tribal governments to advance drone operations.

“One of (the department's) goals is to work with law enforcement to help expand their capabilities,” Russ Buchholz, the state agency’s UAS program administrator, said in a statement. “We collaborated with FAA and the sheriff’s department on the waiver process to enable safe operations of UAS in North Dakota.”

The state Transportation Department in June became the first state government agency to get an FAA permit to fly unmanned aircraft over people. Schroeder said the Burleigh County Sheriff's Department decided to "partner with the state and take advantage of the research and homework that they've done."

There is no direct federal funding for the Integration Pilot Program.

The Burleigh County Sheriff's Department funds its drone program through its regular budget, according to Schroeder. The agency also has applied for federal permission to fly drones at night. Officials expect an answer within about three months.

"We're also hoping within the next two years, we can add thermal imaging," he said. "That would give us the ability to see heat signatures in low light or no light, which would really help for missing people, or for pursuing wanted subjects, things like that."