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Will UAVs spell prairie profits for North Dakota?

April 28, 2014, Washington, D.C. - Forget the North Dakota energy boom. How about a drone boom?


April 28, 2014
By The Associated Press

State and federal officials have big hopes for the growth of what are
known as unmanned aircraft systems. And North Dakota has positioned
itself well to take advantage of its unique attributes: A
first-of-its-kind academic program, an established military presence, a
strong commitment from state and federal officials to find funding, and
even the weather.

 

"North Dakota made a conscious decision, several years
ago, that they wanted to focus on this," said Ben Gielow, general
counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a
group that promotes unmanned systems and robotics. He added, "North
Dakota is one of the leaders and a model that we point to."

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The result is a growing footprint for a
new and potentially lucrative business: According to a report compiled
by AUVSI last year, drones have the potential to create more than
100,000 jobs and more than $80 billion in economic growth between now
and 2025. Domestic drones could yield big rewards for states that invest
now, said Greg McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University who
researches drones.

 

"Basically, you're saying
that you want to be a hub for technological development, that you want
to be the new Silicon Valley," McNeal said. "And that Silicon Valley
might be in North Dakota, but it might not be in a state like Texas
because of anti-drone legislation."

 

Becoming a nexus of drone research could
build on the state's oil prosperity. Drilling at the Bakken and Three
Forks shale formations have led the state's oil production to surge over
the past several years, bringing economic stability, population growth
and low unemployment.

 

The push to make North Dakota a drone
leader as well got a boost this month when Michael Huerta, the Federal
Aviation Administration administrator, announced in Grand Forks that his
agency had granted North Dakota a two-year certificate to begin flying
small drone test flights. That's the first of six FAA-selected test
sites to get such approval. North Dakota is one of six states, along
with Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia, picked to research
integrating drones into the civilian airspace.

 

The FAA does not yet allow the commercial
use of drones, but is working on operational guidelines and has said as
many as 7,500 small commercial drones could be flying within five years
of getting widespread access to U.S. skies.

 

Grand Forks, the location
of the FAA's approved test site, is at the centre of the state's drone
ambitions. The Air Force is expected in June to finalize a 50-year lease
at Grand Sky, an aerospace and technology park in the city. That
facility will be anchored by defence contractor Northrop Grumman Corp.
With the FAA's designation, state officials and others hope to attract
more investment and interest.

 

Privacy issues tend to hover over any
discussion of investment in domestic drones. North Dakota has largely
avoided a backlash by working on the issue proactively. When Gov. Jack
Dalrymple set up a committee to oversee the Grand Forks site's
operations, he included establishing public safety procedures and
privacy restrictions as core goals.

 

John Villasenor, a UCLA professor and
nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said privacy
issues chilled drone investment in some states, "but drones have many
applications, such as crop spraying, that don't raise privacy concerns
at all."

 

The first FAA-approved test flights next
month will showcase that sort of use. The Draganflyer X4ES will fly over
North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center.
Missions are scheduled for the summer over Sullys Hill National Game
Preserve near Devils Lake. In both cases, they will avoid private
property and focus on research of agriculture-related uses.

 

NDSU's extension service
is examining how drones can be used to improve seed applications,
fertilizer and pesticide, which could potentially reduce costs and
improve crop performance. The drones will also collect data designed to
help look at how they can be integrated into commercial airspace.

 

While the state already had the
University of North Dakota's first-of-its-kind unmanned aircraft degree
program.

 

Gielow also cited the presence of the Air Force's unmanned
aircraft mission at the Grand Forks Air Force Base as a reason for the
state's strong position.

 

North Dakota officials have also spent
money to welcome drone research. The state put more than $14 million in
the

Grand Forks site, and the congressional delegation has consistently
pitched federal officials that it would be a good home for drone
research.

 

Then there is North Dakota itself. The
weather provides a variety of test conditions, and the relatively small
population and lack of commercial air traffic make it an attractive
location to run test flights.

 

"For testing purposes, that is what you want," Gielow said.