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Make it or break it: With UAS developments, states’ laws embrace or limit drone use

GRAND FORKS — The number of states with laws regulating the use of unmanned aerial systems has the potential to nearly triple this year.

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More than 100 UAS-related bills and resolutions — most carried over from 2013 — are pending in 34 states. In 2013, 13 states, including North Dakota, approved 16 bills related to UAS programs and regulations.

The legislation boom comes in the wake of a federal law mandating the Federal Aviation Administration safely integrate UAS, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, into national airspace by 2015.

Some of this year’s legislation seeks to limit who can use UAS, set reporting and registration procedures and create criminal penalties for misuse of the devices and the data collected.

Last year, North Dakota legislators shot down putting restrictions on UAS device use.

The move was praised by Bob Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority.

“You shouldn’t let the legislation get out in front of the technology,” he said Tuesday, adding that the courts should be the place where precedents and rules regarding drone misuse and privacy concerns are set.

Strong position

Two months ago, North Dakota was named one of six states that will participate in the FAA’s test site program to research civilian uses of drones.

The research would include the development and testing of policies, safety produces and technology.

The Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority was created by Gov. Jack Dalrymple last year to oversee the operation of the test site in Grand Forks County.

A lack of restrictions could help North Dakota explore more facets of drone use than other states involved in the program, according to Becklund.

“We could be the Kitty Hawk of unmanned aircraft systems,” he said, referring to the town of Kitty Hawk, N.C., where Orville and Wilbur Wright experimented with gliders that eventually led to the first airplanes.

A few states have passed laws that would restrict drone use on their test sites, including Texas, which has defined 19 legal uses of drones.

Other factors also could contribute to a successful test site in North Dakota.

Brian Opp, manager of aerospace business development in the state Department of Commerce, said the state’s test site is in a “strong position for success.”

He cited the existing expertise organizations such as the University of North Dakota’s aerospace school and UAS research compliance committee bring to the table along with the state’s favorable business climate.

Legislative climate

The FAA’s other test sites will be in Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia — all of which could have laws governing UAS use and spending.

Texas and Virginia both passed laws limiting UAS use last year. Texas legislation made misusing drones a crime and established use reporting requirements.

Virginia — the first state to enact UAS regulations last April — banned drone use by law enforcement and some state agencies until July 1, 2015. There are exceptions to the ban, including deploying drones for Amber Alerts and in military and university research and training.

Legislation restricting UAS use is pending in Alaska and is expected to be filed soon in New York.

North Dakota and Nevada both passed laws last year appropriating money for their test sites if their applications were selected by the FAA.

North Dakota legislators approved $5 million for its test site while Nevada designated $4 million.

Of the 13 states to approve UAS laws last year, a majority addressed when law enforcement can and cannot use drones.

Seven of those states only allow drone use if law enforcement obtains a warrant, but exceptions such as preventing terrorist attacks, preventing harm to life and other situations were added by some states.

Some states created criminal penalties for misusing UAS devices or data and prohibited evidence gathered illegally from being used in court.

Illinois specifically prohibited using drones to interfere with hunters or fisherman.

Moving forward

While state legislatures debate restrictions and definitions, the FAA is proceeding with plans to get at least one test site up and running.

A federal mandate states the agency must have at least one test site operating 180 days after announcing its site selections, which came Dec. 30.

A recent meeting with the FAA about North Dakota’s site, officially known as the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site, and how soon it could be running went well, according to Becklund.

“I can say without hesitation that if (the FAA) wanted us to be that site, we could do it and they know we could,” he said.

Moving forward alongside the test site are developments with the Grand Sky UAS park to be located at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Northrop Grumman Corp., a large defense and aerospace technology company, could be the first tenant at Grand Sky once the agreement is signed between Grand Forks County and the air base.

The test site and Grand Sky are part of what could become a booming UAS industry. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that 100,000 UAS-related jobs will be created by 2025 in the United States along with an economic impact of $82 billion.

The organization puts North Dakota’s total UAS employment impact — including direct and indirect jobs — at more than 100 jobs and sees an economic impact of $10.2 million by 2025.