FARGO, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota’s uncongested airspace and tumultuous weather conditions make the state an ideal spot for a civilian drones test site, say officials who are leading the campaign to land the federal project.
The state recently committed $1 million in promotional costs and $4 million in operational costs in an effort to become one of six Federal Aviation Administration operations in the U.S. to test the unmanned aerial systems — in good weather and bad.
A state known for winter snowstorms and prairie winds can use that weather to its advantage, according to Brian Opp and Paul Lucy, two state Department of Commerce officials who are spearheading the project.
“The FAA wants to test these systems in diverse climates,” Opp said. “They want to test it in crummy, cold, windy, snowy conditions and they also want to test it in pristine conditions.”
Drones are already found in the state. The Grand Forks Air Force Base and North Dakota Air National Guard have transitioned from flying air refueling tankers and fighter jets to drones. And the University of North Dakota, long known for its aviation school, is the first college in the country to offer a degree program in unmanned systems.
“The state is positioned to be on the leading edge of an emerging and developing industry,” Lucy said.
Those opposed to the use of domestic drones cite privacy concerns related to information-gathering and surveillance.
A law passed by Congress last year requires the Federal Aviation Administration to allow widespread drone flights in the U.S. by 2015, though the agency may not meet that deadline because of a lag in the development of safety regulations.
About 50 groups from 37 states submitted proposals to the FAA, which is expected to name the winners by the end of the year. Opp said the sites will be used to gather “boatloads of data” to help the FAA craft rules and regulations for civilian unmanned aircraft.
Although drones have been employed in military operations for several years, their application in the public sector is rather recent and is an untapped market estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
“These six test sites will be economic engines for the regions wherever they are placed,” Opp said. “There’s going to be a lot of pull to these sites.”
Opp said two of the most common uses for the drones are in the agriculture and energy sector. The systems can help farmers manage their fields and oil workers maintain their pipelines with cheap and accurate monitoring in remote areas.
The test site proposal is among the agenda items at this week’s seventh Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Featured speakers include Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and representatives from the Air Force and private industry.
Hoeven calls the state “a premier northern hub” for unmanned aircraft operations.
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