UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

First UAS test site powers up

The Federal Aviation Administration announced that the first of six test sites chosen to perform unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research is operational.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce team received a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization to begin using a Draganflyer X4-ES small UAS at its Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. The team plans to begin flight operations during the week of May 5.

According to the UAS manufacturer, the Draganflyer X4-ES is an electric powered semi-autonomous small UAS, intended to be flown within line-of-sight. It features 11 on-board sensors that monitor the attitude of the aircraft in real-time, providing control and telemetry data to a handheld controller. Flight data logging is captured to a removable micro-SD memory card on the handheld controller or to a base station computer.

The main goal of the North Dakota site is to show that UAS can check soil quality and the status of crops in support of precision agriculture research studies, an area for significant economic opportunity and UAS-industry expansion, according to the FAA.

The FAA selected six congressionally-mandated test sites on Dec. 30, 2013, and is working with the sites to guide their research programs to help the FAA safely integrate UAS into the national airspace over the next several years.

Research findings from all six test site operators will help the FAA address technical integration issues, such as solutions for "detect and avoid," command and control, ground control station standards and human factors, airworthiness, lost link procedures and the interface with the air traffic control system.

While supporting the precision agriculture project, the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site also will collect safety-related operational data needed for UAS airspace integration. The information will help the FAA analyze current processes for establishing small UAS airworthiness and system maturity. Maintenance data collected during site operations will support a prototype database for UAS maintenance and repair.

 “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.”

"In addition to agricultural surveying, exploring areas affected by natural disasters and helping with search and rescue efforts, the safe integration of unmanned systems into the national airspace will lead to a wide variety of other commercial applications," said Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority. "Unmanned aircraft have the potential to be less expensive and more efficient than manned aircraft in many instances."

Becklund added that the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department and the Grand Forks Police Department already operate a handful of UAS tactics in partnership with the university. So far the departments have used the UAS in research projects surrounding search and rescue and assessing traffic congestion patterns.

North Dakota not only provides researchers unencumbered airspace, but the Grand Forks region, home of the test site, supports thriving private UAS industry.  That includes the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the University of North Dakota, which has one of the most established UAS undergraduate programs in the nation. In addition, the state has been proactive in addressing privacy concerns by establishing the nation's first-ever UAS Research Compliance Committee, set up to oversee, review and approve the use of UAS for research at UND, according to a statement by the Department of Commerce.

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