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Region drone research efforts showcased in Hillsboro, N.D.

HILLSBORO, N.D.--It's been a busy summer for an Israeli unmanned aircraft that has spent its time flying over land in Traill and Steele counties for research efforts.

HILLSBORO, N.D.-It's been a busy summer for an Israeli unmanned aircraft that has spent its time flying over land in Traill and Steele counties for research efforts.

The Hermes 450 aircraft and its crew were lauded Monday by local and regional leaders who noted the flights were helping keep North Dakota at the cutting edge of the unmanned aircraft systems industry.

"There's been a lot of discussion on what makes North Dakota special but if you just look at it from our perspective-the size, the access, the warm welcome, the willingness to explore new things, the heritage with UAS and with other companies-we're enjoying that, it's great," said Raanon Horowitz, president and CEO of Elbit Systems of America Inc., the aircraft's manufacturer.

Horowitz spoke to a crowd gathered at Hillsboro Regional Airport to receive an update on two research projects that are exploring the feasibility of using large unmanned aircraft, also called drones, for various commercial purposes.

While he and other speakers addressed the crowd, the star of the show sat outside and attracted onlookers who wandered around the nearly 1,000-pound aircraft and its 34-foot wingspan.

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So far this summer, it has seen about 80 hours of airtime with an agricultural research project. While airborne, the Hermes collected data over a 40-mile-by-4-mile stretch of farmland in Traill and Steele counties.

"Our objectives were focused primarily on crop production management and but also a little bit on livestock management," said John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine specialist with the NDSU Extension Service who serves as principal investigator for the research project.

So far, the imagery gathered has allowed researchers to conduct plant stand counts, find weeds and detect various types of crop damage and nutrient deficiencies. For example, when a summer storm brought hail through the region, researchers could see spots of crop damage in the images using software.

The bulk of the aircraft's work has focused on the Hillsboro project, but about 20 miles to the northwest, Mayville, N.D., also is abuzz with unmanned activity.

Xcel Energy is researching the use of drones in response to natural disasters such as storms, tornadoes and floods.

So far, researchers have simulated a downed power pole and been able to detect it using the Hermes 450 cameras, including picking up the pole using thermal infrared imagery. That type of camera displays objects based on temperature.

The operation of the drone at high altitudes for the agricultural and energy projects requires the use of a manned plane to tail the drone in flight as federal law does not allow for commercial flights beyond the line of human sight.

Securing that permission is next on the list for many leaders and businesses, who note the capability will open up even more uses for drone technology.

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"Today, we're talking about innovation in unmanned aviation and we're leading the way," Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said. "And we're going to keep leading the way. Without a doubt, we are going to push forward to make it happen."

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