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UAS research area expanded to nearly two-third of North Dakota


Even more of North Dakota is now a testing ground for unmanned aircraft following a decision Wednesday from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA approved a request by the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site to conduct unmanned aircraft system flights in this designated area.

“It’s good for the FAA. It’s good for the industry. It’s good for us,” said the test site’s executive director, Bob Becklund.

The North Dakota test site, one of six in the nation, is headquartered in Grand Forks.

The approved certificate of authorization allows the test site to conduct UAS-related research and flights in the area defined by the certificate. Right now that area encompasses northeastern North Dakota from roughly Interstate 94 northward. Becklund said he hopes to get another request that would bring in the northwestern part of the state north of I-94 into the FAA and approved soon.

The FAA expects to approve two more certificates that would expand research possibilities to about two-thirds of the state’s airspace, the agency said in a news release.

Even with the expansion, researchers still can’t fly over cities or other populated areas and also cannot fly the devices at night.

“Nothing’s really changed from before other than we have an easier and streamlined way to offer chunks of airspace in North Dakota for research,” Becklund said.

That said, he still expects interest in the state’s test site to grow because of the announcement.

So do members of the state’s congressional delegation who brought FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to the state in December 2013 for the test site’s grand opening and say they have been pressuring him to speed up certificate approval processes.

“With this broad-area COA, the Northern Plains Test Site is the most versatile UAS test range in the United States,” U.S. Sen. John Hoeven said. “It means North Dakota now has FAA approval to test a wide variety of unmanned systems in one of the largest blocks of airspace in the country.”

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp also voiced her approval.

“For this emerging industry to succeed in our state, we need to provide the necessary support for public-private partnerships to flourish,” Heitkamp said. “It’s great news that Administrator Huerta is listening to the concerns of North Dakota’s UAS industry.”


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