Sparsely-populated North Dakota already has one of the strongest economies in the US, thanks to an ongoing oil boom.
Now the northern state of roughly 700,000 residents is seeking to become a nationwide leader in the testing and development of civil unmanned air systems (UAS).
Officials from the Grand Forks region are rallying behind a plan to develop a local hub of UAS innovation. They are also vocally promoting Grand Forks’ application to the US Federal Aviation Administration to be selected as one of six UAS test sites.
“We have open terrain with unpopulated ground density and [low] aircraft density,” says Robert Becklund, director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority – established to help make the region a front-runner among the 25 test sites being evaluated by the FAA.
But Becklund and other local officials say North Dakota has a broader appeal than just its empty skies.
The Grand Forks region is home to a university offering degrees in UAS operation, a thriving private UAS industry and Grand Forks AFB, home to federal UAS operators, they say.
The region has also taken steps to mitigate privacy-related concerns over UAS operation. “There is an expertise that is... already in place” in North Dakota, says the state’s Lt Governor Drew Wrigley.
The 2012 FAA reauthorisation act requires the FAA to establish six UAS test sites, and the agency says it will name the locations by the end of the year.
The FAA intends to use the sites to develop certification, flight and air traffic management standards for UAS as part of its larger effort to integrate UAS safely into national airspace.
Officials note Grand Forks already has a healthy UAS industry anchored by the University of North Dakota, which offers degrees in UAS operations.
The university conducts UAS research into areas such as sense-and-avoid technologies that can help unmanned aircraft steer clear of other manned and unmanned airspace users.
Roughly 130 students are enrolled on the UAS programme according to school officials, and many graduates take jobs with government contractors like General Atomics or small, local UAS firms.
Bruce Smith, dean of the college’s John D Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, says UAS are “on the precipice” of a major technological leap forward.
“Once [UAS] are able to break out into commercial applications, they will be the platform of choice for everything except commercial aviation and general aviation,” Smith predicts.
The university is one supporter of Grand Sky, a project proposed by Grand Forks County to develop a roughly 81ha (200 acre) UAS-focused airspace development park on the Grand Forks AFB site.
UAS are already a common sight at the base. From there, the US Air Force operates a fleet of Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance aircraft, Customs and Border Protection operates General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers and the National Guard operates General Atomics MD-1 Predators.
Local officials say the business park will facilitate testing and development of UAS for commercial applications and pilot and technician training. In addition, the site will be used for data management and analysis and for development of sense-and-avoid systems.
Officials hope to finalise an agreement to lease land from the base this month.
Supporters of the project are quick to note that the non-military UAS industry is active in Grand Forks – the Grand Forks Country Sheriff’s Department and the Grand Forks Police Department operate a fleet of small UAS in partnership with the university.
The aircraft, which include vertical-lift models made by AeroVironment and Draganfly are ideal for search and rescue missions and for monitoring natural disasters like floods, says deputy sheriff Alan Frazier.
Officials also note the community has taken steps to head off privacy concerns by establishing an “unmanned aircraft systems research compliance committee”, which sets privacy standards that the police must follow.
For instance, the committee restricts aerial data that can be retained and requires the departments to post signs in neighbourhoods before operating UAS.
Officials say the committee, composed of representatives from the community, university and local government, is unique to North Dakota, and shows the state takes privacy seriously.
Privacy is also a focus of the FAA, which is requiring operators of test sites to develop privacy policies and comply with local, state and federal civil liberty and privacy laws. In addition, the FAA says operators at test sites must have written plans describing how they will use and retain test data.
The FAA has said test sites will be selected based on a variety of factors including geography and climate, and Becklund says the administration has indicated it wants “cold weather options”.
Look no further than North Dakota, he says.
The average low temperature in Grand Forks in January is -18˚C (-1˚F), and winter temperatures frequently fall to -29˚C or below, according to meteorological data.
Becklund says the region is perfect for cold-weather testing. He says equipment like servomotors can be tested on the ground in North Dakota, while in warmer states such testing must be conducted at altitude.
“The diversity of our weather is a strength,” says Maj Gen David Sprynczynatyk of the North Dakota National Guard, noting that military pilots frequently travel to North Dakota for cold weather training.