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Drone test site sees sharp growth in flights

The federal government's choice of North Dakota as one of six unmanned aircraft test sites in late 2013 was greeted with plenty of pomp and circumstance, with a range of North Dakota dignitaries gathering in Grand Forks to welcome the announcement.

Nicholas Flom was named executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site this month. Photo by Jesse Trelstad, Grand Forks Herald
Nicholas Flom was named executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site this month. Photo by Jesse Trelstad, Grand Forks Herald
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The federal government's choice of North Dakota as one of six unmanned aircraft test sites in late 2013 was greeted with plenty of pomp and circumstance, with a range of North Dakota dignitaries gathering in Grand Forks to welcome the announcement.

Almost three years later, activity within the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site has accelerated. The test site is closing in on 2,000 flights so far this year, said Nicholas Flom, the test site's new director, up from the roughly 250 conducted between its first flight in mid-2014 and the end of 2015.

"You can just see an exponential growth," he said from his office on the UND campus. "It just takes time to get a company to understand the benefits of using a test site."

The test sites are working with private companies and researchers while gathering flight data to help the Federal Aviation Administration craft regulations for the burgeoning unmanned aerial systems industry. The ultimate goal is to safely integrate UAS, commonly referred to as drones, into the national airspace.

North Dakota was the first test site to start operations. But with other test sites getting up and running, including a seventh one that was added recently, those involved with North Dakota's drone industry argue they can't become complacent.

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"I think if we continue to become one of eventually seven test sites, that it's not going to draw the amount of participation from the private sector and foreign companies like it did initially," said Terry Sando, director of UAS sector development at the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. "We don't want to rest our laurels or hang our hat on the fact that we were the first one to stand up."

Regulations overseeing UAS also have evolved since North Dakota's test site became operational. One of those rules, officially known as Part 107, became effective in late August and covers unmanned aircraft weighing 55 pounds or less.

Flom said there's a "much lower barrier of entry to actually fly UAS." But, he added, there are limitations.

That includes keeping the drones within the pilot's sight, along with height and weight restrictions. But the test site has privileges the broader public does not, Flom said.

"If someone wants to expand their capabilities or test beyond the capabilities ... then they still need to come to the test site," he said.

Flom hopes the North Dakota test site can stand out from the rest by offering unique opportunities to the industry. He's seeking federal approval to test larger unmanned aircraft out of a pilot's sight and without a manned aircraft tailing the drone. That would be a first among the test sites, Flom said.

"That's how I stay ahead," he said. "I have to be looking for what's next. What is industry going to want to have next? What are the types of operations that they currently can't do that I anticipate they'll want to do?"

Shawn Bullard, a public policy expert with the government relations firm Duetto Group who works with North Dakota's test site, said North Dakota has managed to stand out since it became the first to get up and running. He pointed out they were the first to propose to the FAA to create a broad certificate of authorization to blanket the entire state of North Dakota, making it easier to launch research here.

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"We've done well by creating an environment that encourages creative, innovative types of activities," Bullard said.

As for full integration of UAS into the airspace, Flom said incremental steps are inching the industry toward that goal.

"We'll obtain it," he said. "There are ... a lot of boxes that need to be checked before we move to that point."

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