FAA gives ND expanded UAS flight testing capabilities

By Patrick C. Miller | August 13, 2015

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) development in North Dakota received a boost from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this week while also marking the first flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from a general aviation airport.

The FAA gave the Northern Plains UAS Test Site approval to expand operations and night flight testing capabilities throughout the state. The University of North Dakota (UND) last week noted a flight test of the Northrup Grumman SandShark UAV conducted from the Lakota, North Dakota, public airport in conjunction with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

The FAA said its expanded authorization for the state was granted under the agency’s Certification of Authorization (COA) process, allowing industry more efficient access to airspace for collaborative research. The FAA said it approved the COA application based on the maturity and the demonstrated safety and operational processes used by the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

“The addition of night flying opens up the opportunities for industry partners to test sensor payloads in all lighting conditions,” said Robert Becklund, test site executive director.

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site also received a COA that makes the entire state available for testing at altitudes higher than the 200-foot blanket COA issued to five other FAA approved sites. North Dakota is the first test site to be entirely covered by a COA that includes airspace above 200 feet for UAS testing.

The SandShark flight from the Lakota airport was part of a test project jointly funded by Rockwell Collins and the North Dakota Department of Commerce, according to Doug Olsen, project manager and a member of the UND UAS Center team. Rockwell Collins—located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—is a manufacturer of avionics for manned aircraft and is developing UAV applications of its technologies.

“This was a milestone flight because right now there are no regulations allowing routine UAS flights at U.S. public airports,” said Al Palmer, director of the UND UAS Center of Excellence. “We are working closely with the FAA to ensure we conduct safe operations under our COA at the airport.”

Olson said, “Rockwell chose UND to test this new technology because of our UAS and test site capabilities. While this first flight was for crew currency and aircraft checks, the nature of the project—our objective—is to eventually fly with new Rockwell Collins radio technology to test how well it works, controlling UAS beyond line of sight.”

UND received the SandShark as the result of a cooperative agreement with Northrop Grumman Corp. to provide UAS pilot training to domestic and global customers. The agreement also encourages development of new technologies for UAS using the SandShark.


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