State’s Biggest Schools Collaborate on Drone Research

JOSH FRANCIS | THE SPECTRUM North Dakota was granted a test site by the Federal Aviation Administration; here, a small drone is on display at an unmanned aerial systems forum in the Fargodome.
North Dakota was granted a test site by the Federal Aviation Administration; here, a small drone is on display at an unmanned aerial systems forum in the Fargodome.

North Dakota is leading the charge to safely integrate unmanned aerial systems, or drones, into the nation’s airspace and find new ways to utilize the emerging technol­ogy for commercial and industrial uses.

In 2012, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration to establish Un­manned Aircraft Systems test sites in order to conduct research that would lead to the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System, according to an FAA fact sheet.

The FAA received 25 applications from 24 different states that wanted to establish test sites; North Dakota was one of six to be granted a test site in December.

“Across the six applicants, the FAA is confident that the agency’s research goals of system safety and data gathering, aircraft certification, command and control link is­sues, control station layout and certification, ground and airborne sense and avoid and en­vironmental impacts will be met,” the FAA’s UAS fact sheet said.

The state then called on several entities including The Department of Commerce, the University of North Dakota and NDSU to facilitate UAS research to fulfill the FAA’s needs as well as build up the industry in the state.

The partnership between UND and NDSU was a no-brainer, officials from both schools said. UND has one of the largest and most highly regarded aviation schools in the nation, and NDSU is known for its many en­gineering programs.

Importance to North Dakota

Researchers say North Dakotans should be excited to have a test site in their state. The opportunity means further growth to the state’s economy, job creation in the private sector and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development.

“It’s going to bring in industry into North Dakota because we’ll have airspace avail­able to fly aircraft,” UND’s director of the UAS Center of Excellence, Al Palmer said.

The UAS industry is expected to be a $90 billion industry at some point in the next decade and North Dakota could experience $900 million in economic development as the industry grows, Palmer added.

While the prospects are looking good for UAS systems being integrated and commer­cialized, researchers say there is still a long way to go before the FAA allows drones to be integrated into the National Airspace Sys­tem.

The FAA says UAS testing will take place at least through Feb. 13, 2017.

Working together

It’s no secret that NDSU and UND are often rivals.

But in regards to the UAS research, the two schools have put aside differences in or­der to conduct research that will benefit both the state and the country.

Both schools bring a lot to the table. UND is known for its aviation and aviation program so they are handling training pilots to operate the UAS systems. UND also has a UAS Center of Excellence where it pro­duces research and learning opportunities in the UAS field.

NDSU is working on engineering com­ponents of the drones to enhance their ca­pabilities. Becklund said NDSU’s agricul­tural programs are also a part of the UAS research.

The two schools are also working with the Department of Commerce, the state’s Aeronautics Commission and the Adjutant General’s office to conduct their research.

NDSU recently hosted a forum in the Fargodome for representatives from all par­ties involved, including the general public, to come discuss and learn more about UAS research.

Leading the way

While five other states —including Alas­ka, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia —all have test sites, North Dakota’s re­searchers say they will be the ones with the first operational site.

The Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority Executive Director, Robert Beck­lund said the FAA has a mandate to have one of the test sites up and running by June.

“I can tell you with the utmost confidence that we here in North Dakota are ready and able to be that one,” Becklund said.

Becklund said the FAA has not deter­mined North Dakota will be the first test site yet but said all indications point to that being the case.

The North Dakota Test Site’s first “mis­sion” will be in support of an agricultural experiment at an NDSU research test site in Carrington, likely in April.

One of the major reasons North Dakota will likely be the FAA’s first operation test site is largely due to the fact UND has tested drones and UAS systems since 2007. The re­search isn’t new to the state.


The possible uses of drones are many.

Palmer said some of the uses of UAS could include: law enforcement, emergency response, energy monitoring, infrastructure monitoring, anything that would lead to tracking animals, tracking wildfires and dam and dike monitoring.

Becklund said the film industry, realtors and companies like Amazon are also inter­ested in UAS research.

Dennis Anderson, NDSU’s associate vice president for business development and industrial relations, said already a lot of private agricultural companies are coming to researchers to see how the UAS research could help their business.

There are even businesses in Fargo, such as Appareo Systems, that are making prog­ress in the UAS technology field.

That company hires a lot of NDSU grad­uates, and it also has NDSU alumni among its company leadership.

Student involvement

Anderson said it is still a goal to get stu­dents more involved in the research.

While NDSU students are involved in the microelectronics side of the research, Anderson said NDSU researcher, Kelly Rusch, created a research working group, and there are plans on campus to scale up the research opportunities for NDSU faculty, staff and students.


The research is by no means easy.

While the state and both NDSU and UND feel they are well prepared to meet the challenges UAS research presents, there is still a lot to overcome.

One of the challenges is adhering to the FAA’s guidelines for the research. But the state established the Northern Plains Un­manned Systems Authority specifically to establish rules for flying UAS systems.

The board of that authority is headed by the state’s lieutenant governor and includes board members from all involved entities.

Funding the research is another big chal­lenge.

While the FAA was mandated to select test sites, they weren’t given a mandate to fund the sites.

The state conditions all appropriated $4 million for the operation of the test site last year.

Becklund said their efforts are largely at the mercy of various external funding sourc­es.

Another challenge can be the fact that the test sites are not centralized, so some sites may have research overlap which would be a waste of resources.

Becklund said one way to alleviate that problem would be to have a more broad na­tional effort in regards to the research, so an agency like the National Aeronautics Space Administration or the FAA could dole out funds specifically for aerospace integration to avoid duplicate research.

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