Publications say ND leads race to land UAS site


By: Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — North Dakota appears to be one of the leading contenders in the race to land one of six national test sites to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.

An article, “How North Dakota plans to become the drone capital of America,” published this week on, the online version of Popular Science magazine, lists the state as one of seven top contenders.

“North Dakota will probably get the bid, and it should,” wrote the author, Kelsey D. Atherton. “Testing drones in extreme winter conditions is important, and it’s best to do it where it’s very unlikely a mishap can actually hurt someone.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to name the six national test sites in December.

Atherton, a science writer and blogger, said he based his research on the same criteria listed by the FAA site selection committee: geographic diversity, climatic diversity, location of ground infrastructure and research needs, population density and air traffic density.

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which last week hosted a convention in Washington, D.C., estimates that integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace will result in “100,000 jobs created and economic impact of $82 billion” nationwide by 2025.


Other top contenders, according to Atherton, are: San Diego; Hancock Field, N.Y.; Sierra Vista, Ariz.; Huntsville, Ala.; Creech Air Force Base, Nev.; and Dayton, Ohio.

North Dakota, one of seven states that had booths at last week’s AUVSI convention, also was mentioned in stories by various media covering the event.

“(University of North Dakota) is one of the nation’s UAS academic hubs. It recently announced it developed sense-and-avoid software that will be tested aboard a NASA unmanned aircraft,” National Defense Magazine reported.

The Washington Post noted North Dakota, Oklahoma and Ohio in its article on the event, noting North Dakota’s claim to have the nation’s first four-year UAS degree, Oklahoma’s UAS engineering graduate program and Ohio’s Air Force research lab.

The newspaper quoted Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley, who was one of the booth’s presenters, who said the state, “‘already is on the leading edge’ of evaluating drones for agriculture, search and rescue, and inspecting infrastructure like pipelines for oil, gas, water and power lines.”


Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training, listed other states are among the contenders, adding Alaska, Oklahoma and Florida to the seven listed in the Popular Science article.

Palmer is confident North Dakota will be one of the winners.

“We want to become the drone capital of America,” he said. “The state of North Dakota is very friendly to UAS operations. A lot of people think we are going to be designated, but you can’t rest on your laurels. We’re still working hard.”


The state already is making plans to be ready when the announcement is made.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple in May appointed Col. Robert Becklund, former commander of the North Dakota National Guard’s 119th Fighter Wing, to lead the North Dakota test site project. Becklund recently served on a UAS task force at the Pentagon.

“We want to hit the ground running,” he said.

Becklund already is working on UAS projects in the state. He and Palmer spent time working this week on a collaborative UND-North Dakota State University UAS precision agricultural research project.

But Palmer said even if North Dakota ultimately is not one of the UAS national airspace integration test sites, the state will continue to be one of the nation’s industry leaders.

Atherton agrees.

“There are states less confident than North Dakota. I think it’s justified in the roughrider state (Do people say that there? I’m new at the North Dakota beat), but it also looks like North Dakota will develop unmanned aviation fine without selection,” he said in an email this week.

“FAA-approved drone use is happening in North Dakota right now,” he wrote, “and states with established programs like that clearly have a head start. States that get approval will benefit, but by no means is that the only way to develop a drone economy.”

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