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Feds approve beyond line of sight flights for drone at Grand Forks test site

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- A group of researchers in Grand Forks can now fly unmanned aircraft to new lengths -- beyond what their eyes can see. The Federal Aviation Administration has granted permission to the Northern Plains UAS Test Site to conduct ...

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. - A group of researchers in Grand Forks can now fly unmanned aircraft to new lengths - beyond what their eyes can see.

The Federal Aviation Administration has granted permission to the Northern Plains UAS Test Site to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations at Grand Sky technology park on Grand Forks Air Force Base.

The permission, known as a certificate of authorization, allows test site staff to fly unmanned aircraft systems, also called drones, without the use of a chase plane. Chase planes are piloted aircraft that follow drones during flight to maintain a sightline between the drone and a human in order to avoid midair conflicts.

"Every time that we go up on a flight, we're sending up two aircraft," said Nicholas Flom, executive director at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. "It doesn't make any sense. That kind of defeats the entire purpose of an unmanned aircraft if I have to send up a second aircraft to go along with that."

Test site personnel won't be able to retire the chase planes just yet. It will be about three to four months before they can take to skies without one because Grand Sky needs to complete technology upgrades so it can link to the base's digital radar system.

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The certificate and resulting research by the test site is expected to eventually create a path for businesses looking to include beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight operations, such as companies that inspect infrastructure or map cropland.

Such capabilities could attract more tenants to Grand Sky, which hosts major aerospace companies Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.

"This is a game-changer for the entire industry nationally," said Tom Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co. "This will be the first place in the United States where we can do that, so we expect that this is going to bring some kind of influx in companies interested in working with us."

In announcing the certificate of authorization, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said this approval makes North Dakota an attractive place for government agencies, such as NASA, the Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security to integrate UAS into the national airspace system.

"The FAA's approval of this COA is a major step forward for North Dakota and the UAS industry in general because UAS will have to be able to fly beyond the line of sight in order to operate concurrently with piloted aircraft in the National Air Space," Hoeven said in a statement. "This authorization will help companies like General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and future tenants at the Grand Sky technology park test and evaluate complex UAS operations possible nowhere else in the nation."

North Dakota has gained a national reputation as a hub for unmanned aircraft activity. Its test site, which is charged with researching the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, has reached numerous milestones since becoming operational in 2014.

"North Dakota is No. 1 when it comes to unmanned aircraft, and that's why I pushed the administration to make the Northern Plains UAS Test Site the first to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a statement. "Grand Forks and the entire Red River Valley lead the country in developing and advancing these exciting technologies. Today's announcement puts the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in an even better position."

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