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Heitkamp talks unmanned aircraft in Grand Forks

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

When it comes to North Dakota’s unmanned aircraft systems use and research, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp says the state is at the front of the pack.

“We’re ground zero, in my opinion,” Heitkmp, D-N.D., told the Herald editorial board Tuesday. “It’s because of all the preparation that was done on the front end.”

North Dakota applied and became one of six test sites being used by the Federal Aviation Administration to research potential aircraft uses and best practices for integrating UAS into commercial airspace.

The administration was mandated by Congress to achieve safe airspace integration by September 2015.

Earlier this year, North Dakota became the first operational test site, though three others had come online as of late July.

“Grand Forks is a perfect spot for our nation to develop UAS technology and procedures that will help support our farmers and businesses and help unleash the economic potential of this promising industry,” Heitkamp said.

With integration comes the opportunity for creating industry jobs, including pilots, sensor and software manufacturers, and data analysts.

“Once the FAA gets to the point where they’re ready to say ‘You can fly this under these conditions,’ we’re going to see a huge commercial utilization of remotely piloted vehicles,” Heitkamp said.

Much of that business is expected to be centered in a UAS business park called Grand Sky that is planned for land near Grand Forks Air Force Base. Rough estimates have put the number of jobs created directly and indirectly by the park at around 2,000 to 3,000.

Commercial use of UAS is illegal in the United States. Research on commercial uses such as monitoring crops and livestock is taking place at one of North Dakota State University’s research centers in Carrington, N.D.