UND expected to play major role in FAA-approved program to advance UAS use
In an eagerly anticipated move, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today announced that six sites have won the exclusive right to conduct research and testing on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The North Dakota Department of Commerce was one of the organizations that received this designation.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said during today's media briefing that he expects to get all six sites — including North Dakota — fully engaged in their testing programs, complete with FAA Certificates of Authorization, which allow UAS to be operated in designated airspace — as soon as possible. The University of North Dakota (UND) is a key player in this national effort.
"We are looking forward to a productive and long-term collaboration, and we thank the many people who made this possible — the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, the current and past members of our North Dakota Congressional delegation, the North Dakota Legislature, the City of Grand Forks and the Grand Forks Air Force Base, as well as our partners at North Dakota State University, Lake Region State College, and Northland Community and Technical College," said UND President Robert Kelley. "Together, we form a unique partnership that is essential to this undertaking."
UND has been a key leader in UAS research and development, teaching and testing.
Bruce Smith, dean of the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, said, "As the first university to offer a UAS degree, the first private-sector user of a Predator drone training system of the military, and the home of the country's first UAS Research Compliance Committee, UND is committed to the cutting edge of UAS technology. This announcement heralds an incredibly bright future for UND, North Dakota and the nation."
In a press conference held this afternoon at UND, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven underscored the importance of today's FAA announcement.
"This is a great way to start the new year!" said Hoeven, who as governor of North Dakota facilitated the launch of UND's UAS Center of Excellence.
"This is about the future of aviation, and it was critical that we got this designation," added Hoeven, praising his congressional teammates Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kevin Cramer, who also made brief remarks during the press conference. Hoeven acknowledge the efforts of many people in the region's growing UAS effort, including Bob Becklund, head of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Authority; Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation; Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown; Anne Temte, president, Northland Community and Technical College, and Doug Darling, president, Lake Region State College, as well as many past and current personnel at UND and North Dakota State University.
North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said in his remarks at the press conference that UND is a globally recognized aviation leader that is also now known as a top player in UAS.
"UAS is the fastest growing component in aviation," he said. With this development in UAS, "the pioneering spirit is alive and well in North Dakota. UAS will be the going concern for the next 100 years."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp re-emphasized during her remarks that this announcement is a major event for the region and for North Dakota.
"We can be the Silicon Valley of this technology," she said. "We got it, not because of political power but because of the merits of the proposal, the quality of the application. We can all celebrate this amazing milestone."
Rep. Kevin Cramer praised the teamwork involved within North Dakota and within the state's congressional delegation for this accomplishment.
"It's really quite unique, quite special," said Cramer, former director of North Dakota Economic Development & Finance. Cramer also applauded efforts in Minnesota, specifically at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, to show support for UAS research and training across state lines. Northland and UND have agreements in place to work together on various facets of UAS research.
The FAA's selection process reviewed 25 competitive applications from 24 states. In selecting the six test site operators, the FAA considered geography, climate, location of ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk. In totality, these six designated test sites reflect cross-country geographic and climatic diversity and help the FAA meet its UAS research needs.
The test sites are expected to generate significant economic development associated with high-tech jobs and investments.
"These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
According to the FAA's announcement, the North Dakota Department of Commerce plans to develop UAS airworthiness essential data and validate high reliability link technology. The FAA announcement said, "This applicant will also conduct human factors research. North Dakota's application was the only one to offer a test range in the Temperate (continental) climate zone and included a variety of different airspace which will benefit multiple users."
North Dakota — especially the University of North Dakota's Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training — have been internationally at the forefront of UAS development both in terms of research and training. Among other recent developments, the U.S. Air Force announced that it will sign a lease with Grand Forks County to establish a UAS tech park at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
"We've said all along that Grand Forks is an ideal location to test UAS integration, and now the FAA has agreed with us," said Hoeven in a statement. "This test site designation, combined with Grand Sky, the Grand Forks region's new aerospace technology and business complex on Grand Forks Air Force Base, is tremendously important and enables the entire region to advance the work it has been doing to become the premier northern hub for unmanned aerial systems."
At the press conference, Wrigley emphasized the state's support for a test site, including Governor Jack Dalrymple's recommendation and the North Dakota State Legislature's appropriation of $5 million toward development efforts. Wrigley also highlighted North Dakota's history of progress in UAS education, research and development, including the University of North Dakota being the first institution in the nation to award degrees in UAS operations. The state also is ideal for a national test site because of its climate diversity and open terrain, as well as its proven aviation and aerospace partnerships between industry, education and government, Wrigley said.
Governor Dalrymple's recent executive order established the Northern Unmanned Systems Authority, a six-member commission chaired by Wrigley to advance North Dakota's UAS opportunities. The commission will also provide oversight if the state is designated to operate a UAS test site. Representatives from the state's general aviation industry, University of North Dakota Aerospace, North Dakota Aeronautics Commission, North Dakota Department of Commerce, and Office of the Adjutant General will serve on the commission.
In a related development, Al Palmer, director of the UND UAS Center, was appointed to serve on the just-launched North Dakota Airspace Integration Team. This team will be the interface between the state and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on UAS integration into the National Airspace System (NAS).
Juan Miguel Pedraza
University & Public Affairs writer