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UAS summit features North Dakota technology

GRAND FORKS — General Atomics, a tenant of the Grand Sky UAS Research and Development Park, has received a certificate of authorization to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights within 60 miles of the Grand Forks Air Force Base without a visual observer or a chase plane. The announcement was made on Tuesday, Aug. 27, by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., during a panel discussion at the Unmanned Aerial Systems Summit and Expo held at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

The company will fly its MQ-9 Predator out of Grand Sky without a chase plane.

“This is a significant expansion of the company’s unmanned operations in the state, another important step toward safely integrating this technology into our airspace and further proof that North Dakota is the location of choice for UAS research, development, testing and operations," Hoeven said.

The BVLOS waiver from the FAA will allow the company to continually operate in the region without having to wait for approval for each flight, a time saver for the company and an opportunity for expanded pilot training — and sales.

“The reason this is such a big deal, it’s continuous operations, so for a 60-mile radius they just fly,” Hoeven said. “They’re not only training their own pilots, they are also training pilots for foreign military sales, so when they sell aircraft to France or England, they can bring those pilots here and train them. This is real commercial use, real commercial application.”

Hoeven said he hopes the unmanned flights will expand from 60 miles to statewide in the future.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein and Federal Aviation Administration Assistant Administrator Bailey Edwards are attending the summit to gain firsthand knowledge of North Dakota’s UAS ecosystem and to outline the next big steps in integrating this technology into the national airspace.

“We have always had our sights on integrating UAS into the national airspace, which will allow us to unlock the vast potential of this technology,” Hoeven said. “It’s no simple task, and in order to do so safely, we’ve worked to ensure North Dakota has the capabilities to tackle everything that integration entails. That includes developing counter-UAS technologies, managing unmanned air traffic and flying in a variety of conditions, including at night, at any altitude and over people."

Hoeven said he is working to develop an unmanned traffic management system under a pilot program with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the FAA, NASA and the test sites in Nevada and Virginia.

Edwards echoed the senator’s comments about unmanned traffic management being a key component in moving the industry forward, especially in terms of safety. In addition to this, remote I.D. requirements, which will allow law enforcement to identify a drone in the air — as well as its operator — will help establish counter UAS technologies, though people whose drones transgress into restricted airspace aren’t necessarily “malicious.”

“For the FAA specifically, it’s safe and secure UAS integration and UTM,” Edwards said. “Often you’re talking about clueless and careless actors who didn’t know they went into someplace they shouldn’t.”

Goldfein commented that conflict between nations traditionally focused on hardware, but now it must focus on software.

“The national defense strategy that articulates what our threat picture looks like on the globe; it’s becoming more and more important that we harness the technology available to us to be able to provide multiple dilemmas for an adversary,” he said.

Goldfein expressed his praise for the region’s development of drones and research, with all the efforts local institutions have contributed.

“It’s what the senator mentioned, which is the thought leaders in Grand Forks, University of North Dakota, Grand Sky, this is where it all comes to together, to help us really think about the future of unmanned aerial vehicles and operations, and quite frankly, I think we’ve just scratched the surface on the true capabilities,” Goldfein said.