FAA opens more airspace in North Dakota for UAS research

By Patrick C. Miller | February 12, 2015

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday authorized unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to fly in a wide area of North Dakota, a development intended to give industry greater access to research opportunities.

Granted under the FAA’s certification of authorization (COA) process, the agency gave the Northern Plains (UAS) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site approval to expand operations throughout North Dakota.

The FAA said the two COAs awarded to the test site “greatly expand the airspace available for research flights to most of northeastern North Dakota” and that it soon expects to approve two more COAs that enable research missions in about two-thirds of the state.

“This makes it easier for industry to get access to airspace across North Dakota through the new COA,” said Robert Becklund, the test site’s executive director. “No matter what specific application a company might be interested in for aeronautical research, we can find a place in North Dakota, and we can help find a cooperative research partner through the universities and the landowners that want to participate.”

The news of the FAA expansion was met with optimism by Zach Lamppa with Energy Intelligence, a firm working with the University of North Dakota to demonstrate the use of UAS to inspect pipelines in the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota.

“It’s one step closer to having groups like ours get out there and test,” he said while noting that his firm is negotiating an arrangement with two major oil producers interested in using UAS and hopes to be conducting test flights this spring.

“You have to have that relationship with the FAA through the university and you’ve got to have that industry support,” Lamppa explained. “That’s going to give us a lot of credibility to push this project to the next level.”

Becklund said the FAA approved the COA application based on the maturity and the demonstrated safety and operational processes used by the site. He noted that a key partner in obtaining the expanded COA has been the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences in Grand Forks, which has decades of experience in aircraft operations.

“We’ve been working on this for about nine months,” Becklund said. “In the FAA’s defense, they have high standards, and so do we.”

Becklund also credited North Dakota’s congressional delegation for its efforts in working with the FAA in helping to expand the test site’s COA.

“With this broad-area COA, the Northern Plains Test Site is the most versatile UAS test range in the United States,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “After a great deal of hard work, we are eliminating the bureaucratic barriers that stand in the way of full integration of UAS into the national airspace.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who last week introduced the Safe Skies for Unmanned Aircraft Act of 2015 to support UAS research and the development, said, “It’s great news that (FAA) Administrator Huerta is listening to the concerns of North Dakota’s UAS Industry, and I'll continue to reach out to him to make sure the FAA fully supports UAS in our state.”

Congressman Kevin Cramer, R.N.D., added, “This great milestone will allow the partnership between private industry, and various local and state government entities, to continue making our state a premier location for the safe testing of UAS.”


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