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Cramer: ND is 2nd or 3rd choice for drone test site

GRAND FORKS -- It's very likely North Dakota will be one of the six states to host a test site for unmanned aircraft, but it is also very likely not the Federal Aviation Administration's top candidate, Rep. Kevin Cramer said this past week in Grand Forks.

The top candidate appears to be Alaska, he said.

Next best or third best appears to be North Dakota, home to Grand Forks Air Force Base and its unmanned aircraft systems, he said. "I'm optimistic about North Dakota."

Cramer, R-N.D., bases his belief on background discussions with analysts working for the FAA, he said.

It's a privilege he has as vice chairman of a House subcommittee that has held hearings on the test sites with the FAA, he said. "That position has given me a rather good view of the whole program."

He expects the FAA to announce Alaska as a test site "fairly soon," and it may be months before North Dakota is added to the list with a test site near Grand Forks.

Local leaders are pushing to get the area selected as a UAS test site because they believe it would bolster the UAS industry here, which has already received a leg up because of the presence of Global Hawk and Predator UAS at the base and a UAS research center at the University of North Dakota.

But there's a big field of candidates to deal with. According to the FAA, it has received 25 applications from 24 states.

Untapped potential

The FAA currently forbids unmanned and manned aircraft to mix for fear of collisions, but that also hampers development of civilian uses for UAS technology, which experts say could benefit fields as far apart as agriculture, telecommunications and law enforcement.

A test site would allow the two kinds of aircraft to mix. UAS boosters in Grand Forks believe having one would attract UAS firms from all over, making the area an industry hub.

The analysts Cramer said he has spoken with are impressed with what the area and the state have to offer the FAA. Basically, he said, they're saying, "Wow, how do you beat what North Dakota has to offer in terms of airspace, climate, not the least of which is the cooperation of the entire state."

All are talking points for him and many other UAS boosters from North Dakota, but he said it's coming from "people who don't have any skin in the game or really care except they're part of the analysis team."

By airspace, he means that North Dakota's is mostly empty, which decreases the chance for collisions considerably. It can also be very cold, allowing for testing under cold weather conditions.

But the business climate can be warm.

Cramer cites the example of the UAS tech park Grand Forks County is trying to build at the Air Force base, which recently agreed to let the county lease 217 acres.

"I don't think we can understate the value of this lease, not only local and state cooperation, but now you throw in the United States Air Force," he said.

Shutdown setback

The FAA had earlier said it would announce the six test sites in December, but Cramer said he doesn't believe it will happen. The recent government shutdown likely set the agency's schedule back, he said.

It's also likely that the FAA will announce one site at a time rather than all six at once, as expected earlier, he said.

UAS boosters here will have to wait in suspense longer than expected.