By Steve Lee
GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The Federal Aviation Administration’s latest outline of how it will regulate unmanned aerial systems, including at the new federal testing site proposed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, might not necessarily make the flowering of new unmanned flights feasible.
That was one message Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., heard Thursday during a roundtable discussion with interested unmanned aerial systems parties at the University of North Dakota.
Grand Forks was one of six places named last month by the FAA as test sites for how to merge unmanned aircraft into the lanes of air space already used by manned aircraft of all sizes.
The idea in Grand Forks is that partnership with a UAS business park, the Air Force, higher education, and a growing set of private aviation companies will make this the premier UAS development site in the world, Hoeven said.
The economic potential is sky-high for what has been named Grand Sky, the proposed commercial park on the Air Force Base with Northrop Grumman, maker of the Global Hawk UAS, as anchor tenant, said the political, civic, business and military leaders at the roundtable.
But the FAA’s Minneapolis center hasn’t seemed eager to accept changes needed if UAS technology is going to take off, several told Hoeven.
In its “roadmap,” released in November for integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace, the FAA laid down a basic rule: Development of new unmanned flights can’t impact adversely current manned aircraft flights.
That stance will lead to delays in getting drones off the ground, roundtable participants told Hoeven.
From his discussions with the officials at the Department of Defense — where many tout UAS as the future of warfare — and at the FAA — which is primarily concerned with the safety of domestic airspace — Hoeven said he knows “the DOD and the FAA have different ideas of how this will work.”
Part of the problem is that flying drones in U.S. airspace is a new thing and the FAA doesn’t have its new rules written yet, despite years of pent-up demand from public and private UAS interests.
Col. Lawrence Spinetta, commander of the 69th Reconnaissance Group, which flies the Global Hawk at the Air Force base, told Hoeven the military has years of experience flying unmanned aircraft in and out of the same airspace used by manned aircraft.
“Every day overseas, we have integrated manned and unmanned flights for millions of hours,” he said.
He supports the Grand Sky idea because history has shown that when new aviation technology flourishes in the private commercial sector, national security benefits from the new research and developments, Spinetta said.
Hoeven asked the local UAS players at the roundtable to put together “a little action plan” that he and his staff could use in talking with Pentagon and FAA officials and others in Congress about expanding UAS use and technology in North Dakota.
He said one big victory in the recently passed omnibus appropriations bill was getting priority for Global Hawk funding, instead of for the venerable U2 manned spy plane used since the 1950s.
“The Global Hawk is the future, the U2 is the past,” Hoeven said.
But the decision is not final. Within the Air Force itself, and the Obama administration, there is support for the U2 as a better use of funding and a better, cheaper intelligence spotter than Global Hawk, a view echoed by those at the roundtable.