The Northern Plains UAS Test Site located in North Dakota, will begin the first official FAA UAV research,operations next week. Its maiden voyage will involve a DraganFlyer X4-ES, a multispectral imaging system from Tetracam and will collect data on soil quality and crop health.
While this is an important milestone in the long and arduous process of bringing drones into the mass market, programs in North Dakota have been flying under the radar (so to speak) for years. Now that the general public is starting to pay attention, some are calling North Dakota the Silicon Valley for drones.
The University of North Dakota’s School of Aerospace Sciences, located in the city of Grand Forks, is one of the top aviation universities in the country and was chosen by the FAA to be its initial test location for UAVs. The university has since put an emphasis on churning out graduates with a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft who are uniquely positioned to build and operate UAVs.
The university has also been conducting research which provides valuable data to both the FAA and drone enthusiasts.
For example, professor Alan Frazier began in the Law Enforcement Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Project in 2010, with collaboration from the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, AeroVironment Inc., and Draganfly Innovations. The goals of the project, according to Frazier are:
“Create a concept of operations for law enforcement use of sUAS; Create law enforcement sUAS pilot and sensor system operator training programs; determine the efficiency and effectiveness of sUAS tasked to public safety missions.”
So far, the program has run hundreds of test flights and nine successful flights for local law enforcement.
The data collected has proved valuable: “They [the FAA] have already benefitted from data mined from monthly reports we submit to them on each COA. In addition, we have worked closely with the FAA on suggesting changes in the COA processes and authorizations.”
One of Fraziers initial points of contention with the FAA was the restriction on night-time flights. But after showing so much promise, the FAA granted Frazier three COA’s allowing day and night operations within the 16 northeastern North Dakota counties. “Night authorization is important because a disproportionate number of serious law enforcement incidents occur at night,” Frazier explained.
There is a lot of public concern about police drones, to the point where state governments are trying to pass laws that limit local law enforcements access to and use of UAVs.
But Frazier sees this apprehension as an over-reaction. “I think those ‘fears’ are primarily driven my sensationalized coverage by the press,” he said. “sUAS are significantly less capable than manned law enforcement aircraft. Manned law enforcement aircraft have been around for 50+ years. Since there has not been any widespread abuse of manned law enforcement air support abuse, why would that change with the use of sUAS by law enforcement?”
He has a point; drones have inherent limitations. They are not first responders. The ‘rescue’ part of search and rescue “is not a viable sUAS mission.”
Drones are tools. To legally operate these tools, Frazier and his team have developed a procedure. He explains:
Local law enforcement agencies request us through the area public safety answering point (police dispatch center.) Once requested, we issue an FAA Notice to Airman and respond to the location. After conducting a safety analysis, if it is safe, we launch the aircraft. We use a pilot and a visual observer at all times. The whole process usually takes one hour.
While other states are pulling their hair out over the thought of police drones buzzing around the cul de sac, North Dakota is paving the way for coexistence. The research, policies and people that will be dictating a considerable portion of the direction of the commercial drone industry are coming in to their own in the Roughrider State.