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UAS test site could mean economic boon for region, questions about privacy

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -— Under a PowerPoint slide reading, “Congratulations, Team North Dakota,” lawmakers, economic development officials and higher education leaders exchanged congratulatory messages Monday.

They gathered after the Federal Aviation Administration named Grand Forks and the state as one of six test sites across the country for integrating unmanned aerial systems, often called drones, into the national airspace alongside manned craft. It was the culmination of years of work that they say will help establish the region as a hub of UAS development.

But they acknowledge there’s plenty of work ahead.

The designation could mean an economic boon for the community, as local and outside companies look to test new technologies. And it means research performed here will help guide the future of UAS, an emerging industry that has its roots in the military but is poised to grow into commercial uses such as agriculture.

But the test phase, which will last until at least 2017, also could provide time to examine the technology’s societal implications. Federal and state lawmakers, as well as privacy advocates, have raised concerns about how the new technology could affect civil liberties once it makes the transition from the battlefield to the commercial airspace.

What now?

Research and demonstration of UAS technology is expected to accelerate in 2014 now that Grand Forks has been designated a test site.

Much of the groundwork is in place, with higher education institutions such as the University of North Dakota, Northland Community and Technical College, Lake Region State College and North Dakota State University partnering on UAS programs.

Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training, said the nature of the research won’t change drastically; there will just be more of it now that there’s easier access to the skies.

Palmer said research will focus on airworthiness standards for the physical UAS craft, the data links between the operator and the craft, human factors to make sure UAS systems are similar, like how all cars share similar layouts, and pilot training.