Proposed rules for small unmanned aircraft receive positive reaction

GRAND FORKS -- Proposed rules released over the weekend for operating small unmanned aircraft garnered positive reaction from industry experts and political figures in North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS - Proposed rules released over the weekend for operating small unmanned aircraft garnered positive reaction from industry experts and political figures in North Dakota.


The rules have been years in the making and their debut came with some fanfare Sunday shortly after a Federal Aviation Administration draft of the proposal was leaked online.


"I was surprised and thrilled to see that the FAA published the small UAS notice for proposed rulemaking on Sunday," said David Dvorak, owner of unmanned aircraft systems business Field of View in Grand Forks."It has been a long journey. I personally have been following this process for over five years and have watched it get delayed many times."



The draft rules govern a number of areas including flight limits, operator requirements and aircraft requirement.


To members of the industry, the proposal represents progress that has come slowly.


"The UAS industry is one step closer to realizing the economic and technology benefits that have been talked about for several years," Doug McDonald, special operations manager for Grand Forks firm Unmanned Applications Institute International.


The public will have the opportunity to comment on the rules, and after comment period is over, the FAA will finalize them - a process that could take months.



"Ultimately, I am looking forward to the finalization of the rule so our customers can use our aerial imaging products to make a profit, help farmers and finally do on a broad scale what we have all been talking about doing for the past six to seven years," Dvorak said.


The rules apply to small unmanned aircraft, defined as devices less than 55 pounds.


The aircraft must be flown within the operator’s sight, below an altitude of 500 feet, less than 100 miles per hour and not over people who aren’t involved with its flight. The flights also can occur only during the day.


"(Sunday’s) announcement strikes a much-needed balance between privacy and safety concerns, while providing room to develop innovative technology," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said in a news release.



Requirements for operators aren’t as strict as some first speculated. A pilot’s license will not be necessary to fly the aircraft, though operators will be required to pass an FAA aeronautical knowledge test. Overall, the agency estimates getting a operator certificate will cost about $300. Operators also must be at least 17 years old to fly the devices.


"The major provisions outlined, including operational limitations, operator certification and responsibilities and aircraft are not too onerous, and I think will be readily accepted by those within the industry," McDonald said.


The sentiment was echoed by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who visited North Dakota last year to declare the state’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site operational.


"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," Huerta said in a news release. "We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."


The rules’ release comes days before the Air Force will sign a enhanced-use lease agreement with Grand Forks County at Grand Forks Air Force Base for about 200 acres of land. Grand Sky, a UAS and aviation tech park, will be built on the land adjacent to the base.


While the rules are a step forward, others want to see the FAA provide more guidance for other uses of unmanned aircraft and associated research.


"(Sunday’s) draft guidance does address some concerns of the UAS community and signals that the FAA is starting to respond to industry’s need for rules that allow them to operate," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement. "However, the FAA needs to embrace the test sites we created in Congress as a way of doing the real work to integrate UAS into the national airspace."


North Dakota’s test site had a request granted by the FAA last week to expand the airspace in which it is able to conduct UAS research.


While commercial operation remains banned, the flight of small aircraft under the proposed rules could indicate what kind of demand exists for those types of UAS services.


"From a regional and state perspective, I think this will show the latent demand that is out there focusing on precision agriculture, oil and gas monitoring and related activities," McDonald said. Agricultural research using unmanned aircraft is already underway in the state. Precision agriculture, which uses data collected by unmanned devices to monitor crops and livestock, is predicted by industry groups to be the most profitable sector of unmanned aircraft use.


In the proposal, the FAA touts UAS as a means of safely inspecting structures such as towers. In North Dakota’s energy industry that could translate to wind turbine and oil drilling equipment inspections and detecting pipeline leaks and breaks.


The FAA has been congressionally mandated to integrate UAS technology into national airspace by September of this year.


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