North Dakota’s fledgling drone business awaits FAA action

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GRAND FORKS – Hundreds of companies have contacted North Dakota’s unmanned aircraft test site over the past year hoping to test drones, cameras or other technology.

Researchers say they have plenty of demand. What they need are rules.

More than a year after North Dakota was named one of six national test sites for drones, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to write regulations governing drone use in the United States. Observers say the pace of rulemaking is keeping a potentially huge industry grounded.

The lack of rules is forcing businesses and even some North Dakota researchers to take their drones to Canada where it’s easier to get permission for test flights. Canada, Australia and several European countries have fewer restrictions on drone flights. That’s attracting U.S. firms and leading some in Congress to worry the United States will lose business.

“The FAA is just not moving as quickly as we would like them to move and we don’t really understand why that is,” said Al Palmer, head of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

Industry leaders and researchers have become increasingly frustrated waiting for regulations, said Palmer, who compared the FAA to a turtle. “In order to move forward they have to stick their neck out.”

The FAA is expected to release proposed rules for drones that weigh less than 55 pounds within the next month. But Palmer said those rules won’t likely be final until 2017, extending the uncertainty for unmanned aircraft businesses.

Military drones fly from the Grand Forks Air Force base, and the region is developing a commercial drone industry. Testing of drone-carried sensors for agriculture is expected to begin this spring, said Robert Becklund, director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site.

Becklund said the lack of clear guidance from the FAA is scaring away customers. Businesses don’t know what kind of restrictions the federal agency will impose for commercial use of drones, and the rules for using the North Dakota airspace are bureaucratic and limiting.

But Becklund said he isn’t deterred by the slow pace of federal bureaucracy and hopes the FAA will soon authorize drone test flights over a large area of North Dakota. That will significantly reduce paperwork and delays.

“It doesn’t really surprise me that it’s taking this long to get things moving,” he said. “From a practical point of view, it’s plenty frustrating for us here who want to contribute directly to the FAA’s needs.”

The FAA doesn’t comment on pending regulatory decisions and declined to make officials available for this story. Part of the problem, observers say, is that the FAA needs drone data to help establish safety standards. Test sites could help provide that data. But Congress provided no funding for the test sites, so the FAA can’t order research.

Becklund is looking for creative ways to make the test site more accessible to companies doing drone research and development. Under current rules, they need to partner with a public research university to test drones or drone equipment. Some businesses balk at sharing information and equipment, however.

Economic development officials say uncertainty about federal rules has many small businesses waiting to invest money in drone technology. But some big companies are already committed to the Grand Forks area. Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman plans a facility in a new technology park at the Grand Forks Air Force base.

Local officials say they are close to finalizing an agreement with the Air Force so drone companies can build research facilities at the air base.

Becklund said changing the description of drones from aircraft to experimental aircraft might smooth the FAA rule process and move things forward.

“I think that’s the real way ahead here,” said Becklund, who may push for the change this year. “The test site will help them get the airspace and then they can fly those airplanes themselves.”

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