UAS test site could mean economic boon for region, questions about privacy
GRAND FORKS — Under a PowerPoint slide reading, “Congratulations, Team North Dakota,” lawmakers, economic development officials and higher education leaders exchanged congratulatory messages Monday.
They gathered after the Federal Aviation Administration named Grand Forks and the state as one of six test sites across the country for integrating unmanned aerial systems, often called drones, into the national airspace alongside manned craft. It was the culmination of years of work that they say will help establish the region as a hub of UAS development.
But they acknowledge there’s plenty of work ahead.
The designation could mean an economic boon for the community, as local and outside companies look to test new technologies. And it means research performed here will help guide the future of UAS, an emerging industry that has its roots in the military but is poised to grow into commercial uses such as agriculture.
But the test phase, which will last until at least 2017, also could provide time to examine the technology’s societal implications. Federal and state lawmakers, as well as privacy advocates, have raised concerns about how the new technology could affect civil liberties once it makes the transition from the battlefield to the commercial airspace.
What now? Research and demonstration of UAS technology is expected to accelerate in 2014 now that Grand Forks has been designated a test site.
Much of the groundwork is in place, with higher education institutions such as the University of North Dakota, Northland Community and Technical College, Lake Region State College and North Dakota State University partnering on UAS programs.
Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training, said the nature of the research won’t change drastically; there will just be more of it now that there’s easier access to the skies.
Palmer said research will focus on airworthiness standards for the physical UAS craft, the data links between the operator and the craft, human factors to make sure UAS systems are similar, like how all cars share similar layouts, and pilot training.
“The FAA wants data,” Palmer said. “So they can use that data to make informed decisions on how to best integrate UAS into the national airspace system.”
At least one of the test sites must be up and running within six months. And Palmer said after some negotiating with the FAA on the use of the airspace, North Dakota should be ready to go.
“You crawl, walk and then run,” Palmer said. “We’re about ready to run.”
The test site also likely will draw companies from outside North Dakota to conduct research. Bruce Gjovig, director of the Center for Innovation at UND, said part of the Ina Mae Rude Entrepreneur Center will be set aside for companies to do UAS research.
“Our tech incubator will be a soft landing for some of those UAS entrepreneurs,” he said.
New opportunities More companies may also express interest in the proposed Grand Sky business park, which will be located at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The pending test site announcement was of interest to officials at Northrop Grumman Corp., a large defense and aerospace technology company that’s set to be the anchor tenant at Grand Sky.
Grand Forks County Commissioner John Schmisek said a developer’s agreement is still being negotiated with FDSL, the developer of the Grand Sky project, and an environmental impact study is also in the public comment phase. Both of those items have to be finished before the lease with the Air Force can be signed and construction at Grand Sky can begin, Schmisek said.
Schmisek said he’s hopeful the lease can be signed by mid-February ahead of a groundbreaking in the spring.
The North Dakota Department of Commerce projected in its application to the FAA that the UAS industry would have a $59 million economic impact and 242 jobs would be created in the state through 2016. Through 2023, those numbers are expected to jump to $500 million in economic impact and 658 jobs created, although Paul Lucy, the department’s director of economic development and finance, described those projections as “extremely conservative.”
“We think there’s a world of opportunity for this to take off beyond what we really could anticipate,” he said. “And a big part of it is this is really a new industry.”
Privacy But that newness makes some wary of the technology’s implications for privacy.
State Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, introduced a bill last session that would have required law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before using UAS in the investigation of a crime, prohibited domestic surveillance by private parties and required those authorized to conduct surveillance using UAS to keep detailed flight logs.
Steven Morrison, a UND law professor, said a new technology such as UAS opens up a host of privacy implications. Law enforcement can constitutionally observe someone’s backyard from a manned helicopter, he said, but high costs have acted as a natural barrier from that happening on a regular basis.
But UAS are much cheaper to operate.
“With drones, that natural limitation isn’t there anymore,” Morrison said.
Gjovig said one of UAS’s main commercial uses in the future will be in precision agriculture to gather data on crops.
“I don’t think the corn and soybeans care about privacy so much,” he said. “But when you fly around in urban environments, or around homes and buildings, there’s more of a concern.”
For that reason, Gjovig said, using UAS to deliver packages over short distances, as popularized by a recent “60 Minutes” segment on Amazon, may come to fruition later.
“Because I think the privacy has got to be addressed as a part of this,” he said. “People will want to know they’re not being spied on.”
During Monday’s news conference, North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley cited the UAS Research Compliance Committee at UND, which reviews research projects before they take flight.
“This committee is going to make sure that any testing that’s going to go on in this state is first going to pass muster with, ‘What are our ethics?’ (and) ‘How do we view privacy?’” he said.
Becker said it’s “likely” he or someone else will reintroduce the UAS legislation during the next session. He said the biggest concern with the bill was a chance it could hurt the economic development opportunities UAS could bring, although the bill exempted research activities, examining scenes of natural or environmental disasters, and patrolling borders.
He said North Dakota’s designation as a test site is a chance to explore privacy and civil liberty issues.
“I hope we take a position that’s thoughtful in a way that includes the concerns of civil liberties, because we have that opportunity and I don’t think it should be squandered,” he said.