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U.S. Department of Transportation General Counsel Steven Bradbury prepares to give remarks on North Dakota's selection for a drone pilot program at the state Capitol in Bismarck Wednesday, May 9, 2018. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Seeking 'regulatory framework' to integrate drones into airspace, feds select North Dakota for national program

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Department of Transportation was selected for a national program aimed at hastening drones' integration into the skies, state and federal officials announced Wednesday, May 9.

The state DOT was among 10 entities selected for the federal Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program, which U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said will gather data to "form the basis of a new regulatory framework to safely integrate drones into our national airspace." An event announcing the selection at the state Capitol featured Chao on a live video feed from Washington, D.C.

"This collaboration allows us to develop policy that will one day serve as a blueprint for the rest of the country," said Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who chairs the commission that oversees the state's drone test site.

The North Dakota DOT listed several possible drone activities under the program, including reconstructing traffic crashes, expediting emergency responses during floods and inspecting pipelines. The agency will work with the state's drone test site, along with local, state and tribal governments and companies like CNN, Airbus and Xcel Energy.

The three-year program stems from a directive signed by President Donald Trump last year. It doesn't include direct federal funding but allows state and local governments to get quicker federal airspace approval and establish "innovation zones" for drone testing, according to the state DOT.

Sanford noted North Dakota was designated as one of the country's six test sites for researching drone airspace integration just a few years ago. U.S. DOT General Counsel Steven Bradbury said the new program is "building off those test sites."

"The pilot program is really going to give us a lot of data and there's going to be a lot more community engagement so that we really get people comfortable with expanding the bounds of UAS operations," he said.

The program attracted 149 proposals. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the city of San Diego, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Lee County Mosquito Control District in Florida were among those selected.

Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation welcomed the state's selection. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said integrating drones into the national airspace "will mean tremendous growth in this technology, bringing investment and good jobs, while also supporting our national security."

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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