Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — Though North Dakota and five other states edged Minnesota out of the running for an unmanned aerial systems test site last year, there doesn’t seem to be any hard feelings.
North Dakota’s test site is an hour to the southwest of Thief River Falls in Grand Forks County, but Northland Community & Technical College students here soon could be flying unmanned aircraft within in their own state borders.
Curtis Zoller, associate dean of aerospace programs, announced that the school received news Monday that the Federal Aviation Administration approved its application for a certificate of authorization to fly unmanned aircraft.
With FAA permission prior to launch, the school can fly unmanned aircraft in Roseau County in Minnesota. The school maintains a satellite office in the city of Roseau, about an hour’s drive from Thief River Falls
The announcement was made to politicians, college staff, industry leaders and others from both sides of the Red River gathered Tuesday at Northland Community & Technical College’s aerospace facility for a UAS summit.
Two goals of the summit were to identify and discuss UAS opportunities that could benefit the region.
“If we become the premier spot (for UAS) — which I think we have a good chance of doing — this would be a tremendous economic development tool for this area,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
The mention of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, may conjure images of military use, but Peterson said there are a lot of misunderstandings about what the technology is and what potential uses could be.
One of those possibilities forecast to have a major impact in North Dakota and Minnesota is integrating drone technology into activities such as farming.
“The biggest opportunity with these unmanned aircraft is in agriculture,” Peterson said. “We already have people developing systems here in Minnesota and other places that are actually being utilized already to augment precision agriculture.”
The data collected by these agricultural drones could alert farmers to how much of their crop is affected by pests or disease, count the number of plants per acre and much more.
Making sure there are trained individuals who can use software to interpret the data and images is where schools such as Northland and the University of North Dakota come in.
“It doesn’t do any good to go up there and take pictures and not do anything with it,” Peterson said.
Northland President Ann Temte said an expanding UAS industry in the region could attract something else besides economic development: youth.
“UAS is good for the environment, it’s good for the cost ratio of producing food, and it could attract young people who may not have been interested in food production,” she said.
Drawing skilled workers to this and other sectors would help fill a gap in the nation’s labor force, according to U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
“There are several million jobs that we could fill if people had the skills,” he said.
Northland’s UAS maintenance training program was the first of its kind accredited in the United States when it debuted four years ago.
“And this kind of program … is exactly the kind of program that is a big part of the future of education,” Franken said.
At Northland, students learn maintenance using both simulators and aircraft. The school’s unmanned vehicles range from small quadrocopters that can rest on a tabletop to aircraft weighing more than 200 pounds.
Event attendees saw these vehicles and other training equipment while touring the facility’s aircraft hangar and classrooms.
Presentations from college staff and an overview of the North Dakota UAS test site were also part of the program.
Test sites such as the one in North Dakota will aid the FAA in crafting regulations for civilian UAS use and aircraft certification requirements — tasks the agency hopes to have completed by 2015.