North Dakota Leads UAS Research with First FAA-Mandated Test Site

May 13, 2014, 10:00 ET from North Dakota Department of Commerce

GRAND FORKS, N.D., May 13, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- This week, North Dakota aerospace and aviation leaders are in Orlando, Fla. for the AUVSI Unmanned Systems North America 2014 conference.

As one of the six Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) designated test sites for integrating UAS into national airspace, the delegation will be at the show to discuss how the nation's first operational unmanned aerial systems (UAS) test site is advancing research and supporting businesses in this growing industry.

"Not only does North Dakota have the long-term UAS operational history with experience, programs and resources, but it is now leading the industry as the FAA's first mandated test site," said Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley who also serves as chairman of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority.

Just this month, the FAA granted the North Dakota Department of Commerce a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to begin using a Draganflyer X4ES small UAS at its Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta was in North Dakota to make the announcement. Initially, the research will check soil quality and the status of crops in support of North Dakota State University/Extension Service precision agriculture research studies.

"The precision agriculture industry represents a significant growth opportunity for the UAS-industry with estimates that 25 million acres of farmland will be using UAS by the end of this year," said Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. "With 89 percent of the state composed of farmland, this was a natural fit for our capabilities."

Becklund added that in addition to supporting the precision agriculture project, the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site also will collect safety-related operational data needed for UAS airspace integration. The information will help the FAA analyze current processes for establishing small UAS airworthiness and system maturity. Maintenance data collected during site operations will support a prototype database for UAS maintenance and repair.

These new studies are just the most recent examples of how North Dakota is leading on UAS research and training of the next generation of UAS pilots.

The University of North Dakota (UND), which was the first university to offer a degree program in unmanned aviation in 2009, is working in partnership with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory to create a curriculum that will incorporate the state-of-the-art UAS Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS) simulator. UND has also worked with the MITRE Corporation to develop automatic sense and avoid computer software algorithms and  formed the nation's first UAS Research Compliance Committee to regulate UAS as it relates to privacy.

"One of our main messages leading up to the FAA's selection of the six test sites was that if North Dakota was chosen, things would be on time and on budget," Becklund said.  "Having our test site operational two and half months in advance of the FAA's deadline proves many points, but the one I want to highlight is that it shows that you can always trust us to meet our promises."

Becklund added that another promise the state is keeping is the support the UAS industry receives in North Dakota.

North Dakota has invested over $19 million to advance UAS research and development and is collaborating with organization statewide In addition, the state's Research ND program matches up to $300,000 in research dollars to organizations and companies involved in UAS research.

Among the companies working closely with the state is Northrop Grumman, a tenant at UND's Center for Innovation and the maker of Global Hawks, which will fly from Grand Forks Air Force Base. Also in agreement with the Air Force Base is the developing Grand Sky project, the nation's first UAS technology park that will cover 225 acres of the base. Grand Sky will allow for private and public parties to develop and research UAS, creating an estimated 3,000 jobs over the next 10 to 20 years.

For more information on North Dakota's UAS industry visit and for details on the Northern Plains UAS Test Site visit  

SOURCE North Dakota Department of Commerce