Unmanned System News 21/4/2014

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FAA Opens First Operational UAS Test Site in North Dakota 

Photo courtesy Draganfly Innovations Inc.

By Priya Potapragada and Danielle Lucey

The Federal Aviation Administration announced today that it has granted North Dakota Department of Commerce a certificate of authorization to begin conducting unmanned aircraft research as a part of the agency’s UAS test site program. 

The FAA touted that the formal standup of the test site is more than two and a half months ahead of the deadline set for the program by Congress.

The North Dakota team plans to start testing the Draganflyer X4ES small UAS at its Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site during the week of 5 May. The site’s initial purpose is to show that UAS can check soil quality and the status of crops to assist North Dakota State University/Extension Service precision agriculture research studies.

In an interview with AUVSI that took place prior to the announcement, Al Palmer, director of the UAS Center for Excellence for the University of North Dakota, outlined the process of standing up the site. 

“We’re leveraging the University of North Dakota’s aviation program, and that brings with it all the dispatching, standardization, manuals, maintenance, safety management systems, every thing we use in our manned we used in our unmanned aircraft program,” he said. 

“North Dakota has really taken the lead in supporting the growing unmanned aircraft industry,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We look forward to the contributions they and the other test sites will make toward our efforts to ensure the safe and efficient integration of UAS into our nation’s skies.”

The Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site will also help to gather safety-related operational data needed for UAS airspace integration so the FAA can analyze current UAS regulations.

“These data will lay the groundwork for reducing risks and ensuring continued safe operations of UAS,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who was in North Dakota today to announce the news. “We believe the test site programs will be extremely valuable to integrating unmanned aircraft and fostering America’s leadership in advancing this technology.”

The North Dakota COA is effective for two years. The state spent more than $14 million to establish the site and it has $5 million of funding, with an additional $4 million that was contingent on the site getting selected. 

“We have worked long and hard to earn one of only six national test site designations and to become a national leader in UAS test site operations,” said North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple. “With test site designation in hand and the first UAS program certification, we have a great opportunity to become a national hub for UAS research and development, to expand North Dakota’s role in aerospace sciences and to further diversify our economy.”

Flights will take place over North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center, located in Carrington, N.D., and the second set of missions, scheduled for summer 2014, will fly over Sullys Hill National Game Preserve near Devils Lake, N.D.

“We have one application over at Devils Lake where there’s the UAS that can take a look at cows and pigs and monitor the temperatures of those animals,” said Palmer. “Just like humans, when we get sick the first thing that happens is we have an increase in temperature. … Animals have the same thing. If a rancher could sense that the animal is getting sick then he could quarantine that animal before it infected the rest of the herd.”

Palmer said the area of North Dakota was prime for test site selection due to its history and prestige. 

“We started aviation back in 1968, and we’ve got a premier aviation education program for manned aircraft and for unmanned, and we’re leveraging that experience for the test site,” he said. “There’s a lot of neat things. Since we’ve started unmanned aircraft, we’ve done $59 million worth of research in unmanned aircraft. It’s a great place to come and do research."