The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Monday named six sites dedicated to the research and testing of unmanned aerial systems, or drones. Earlier this year, it received 25 proposals from 24 states looking to cash in on what could be a growing industry in the coming years, once the federal government has developed a legal framework for pilotless airplanes. Among those chosen to run a site was the Commerce Department of North Dakota, a state that has long seen aviation as a major driver of economic activity and has been increasingly focused on drones. Flush with tax revenues from an oil boom, the state government has been building the bones of a drone industry for years.
Bob Beckland, director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, now controls $4 million of state money to run the site through the three-year period with the FAA. We spoke by phone about the project. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Why is North Dakota a good place for a drone testing site?
First of all, the FAA was mandated to have climatically diverse test sites. Well, here in North Dakota it can be 100 degrees or even hotter in the summer, and in the winter it can seriously get to 40 below. We definitely have a wide variety of climate here.
Specifically related to flying: Around 2005 this whole region began focusing on unmanned aerial systems, including the International Guard, which switched over to the Predator; the Air Force base, which got the Global Hawk assigned here; the Customs and Border Protection; and the University of North Dakota adopted an unmanned aircraft systems undergraduate degree program.
The University of North Dakota aviation school possesses a fleet of about 130 fixed-wing and rotary airplanes. They fly 1,000 hours a month. If we need a very complicated and busy test with a lot of participating airplanes, we can do that because we control those airplanes.
Also, we’re a fairly small state, so it’s pretty easy to get things done.
Sounds like there’s plenty of drone-related activity going on out there already. What will change, now that you’re a test site?
We expect an increase in activity—we hope, from industry. Over the last 10 years or so, industry has been out there using their research and development money developing systems that they think will meet FAA standards, and they find out they probably won’t. Now I’m hoping these companies can come to the test sites, knowing whatever research they do will be vetted and will have a better chance of being selected as a solution. We’ve got great financial incentives for companies who want to come here. We’ve always been in the black, and with the oil money we’re even more in the black.
Getting going under a test-site umbrella, the FAA has to have a test site going within 180 days. I think the FAA will ease into the test sites, but that’s a speculation. We’d be ready to go in that 180-day window.
The FAA laid out a separate focus for each test site. Yours is described as developing UAS airworthiness essential data, validating high reliability link technology, and conducting human factors research. What does all that mean?
Aircraft that are manufactured in this country are granted airworthiness by the FAA. On unmanned aircraft, those standards don’t exist. Then there’s the ground control station, which isn’t connected to the aircraft physically. That has to meet standards also. Then the links that go between the ground control station and the aircraft have to be tested, too. There’s a ton of stuff there.
Human factors are like the cockpit design or ground control design. These aircraft were designed largely for the military, and they went straight from science experiments to combat. The seats, the chairs, the throttles, the displays the pilot sees, the communications systems, how everything is laid out, those are included. The endurance of these aircraft can be so long; they can stay airborne for 24 hours. How do you improve the factors of changing out flight crews? We need studies of how long you can sit there and fly the aircraft effectively. When is the right time to suggest a rotation of crews?
By the way, that’s how it was described in the announcement. We had no formal contact with the FAA other than that press release. There’s many other things we’re doing too, and I’m sort of hoping that they’re not going to categorize. We’re very interested in—and good at—air-based sense-and-avoid systems.
Sounds like there hasn’t been much communication between you and the FAA Is that a problem?
From the time we turned in our proposals in May, there has been no communication. But it’s not a problem. We expect to hear from the FAA and begin collaborating with the other test sites—even those who weren’t chosen. This is going to be a national effort. It’s going to be a busy month of January.
What about privacy? Are you developing guidelines?
Research universities across the country have to have research compliance committees to guide ethics and privacy studies when it comes to research on animals and human subjects. A few years ago the University of North Dakota developed a UAS research compliance committee. This committee is staffed by 19 people from the university, and there are members of the local community, local government, first responders, and members of the clergy. Anybody that’s going to do a research flight has to run a proposal by the committee, which has the power to amend or refine or even deny flight of the airplane until they revise the policy issues. These meetings are open to the public.
Have they rejected or altered any plans?
I don’t think they’ve rejected any. But the Grand Forks County sheriff’s office wanted to use one of their unmanned systems to monitor traffic. The committee mandated a couple of requirements: They couldn’t record the data and they also had to notify the public. They created signs that said, “unmanned aircraft in use,” or whatever. I haven’t actually seen them. But they’ve been flying unmanned aircraft in the area for, I suppose, close to 10 years now, and we haven’t had any major issues.
It could be a model for the rest of the country. It’s hard to be unbiased, but I think we’re way ahead of the rest of the country on this one.