Inside One Of The FAA’s New Drone Test Sites

The FAA has chosen six states as test beds for integrating flying robots into U.S. airspace. Popular Science visited one site in North Dakota to get a look at the future of domestic drones.

Earlier this week, flying barely under the wire of its 2013 deadline, the Federal Aviation Administration announced the six states it had selected as test sites for domestic drone use. The goal is to figure out how unmanned aerial vehicles can safely work in U.S. skies alongside commercial planes, news and police helicopters, cropdusters, and the whole range of peopled flying machines. Twenty-four states applied, eager to lead the country in developing commercial uses for drones and grab a slice of what the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International predicts will be an $82 billion industry by 2025.

The winning candidates were Alaska, Virginia, New York, Texas, Nevada, and North Dakota. Prior to test site selection, the FAA authorized over 300 much smaller test sites for drones, most of which were universities and small police departments. The FAA program is set to conclude in February 2017.

In November, I went to one of these test sites in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to see what exactly the future of domestic flying robots might look like. Full disclosure: The North Dakota Department of Commerce paid for my trip.

“Unmanned is unequivocally the future of aviation.”

When I, along with four other journalists, traveled to the Roughrider State, I found a community united in avoiding the word “drone.” The officials I spoke with refer to their flying machines as “unmanned aircraft.” That’s what the FAA is calling them, while at nearby Grand Forks Air Force Base the term is “remotely piloted vehicle.”

“Unmanned is unequivocally the future of aviation,” 69th Reconnaissance Group Commander Colonel Lawrence Spinetta said, speaking at Grand Forks Air Force Base. It’s not just the military that has adopted this attitude. In 2010, the University of North Dakota, which has a long history in training airplane and helicopter pilots, created the nation’s first civilian degree program in piloting drones. The FAA granted the University of North Dakota a special certificate that allows the school to fly unmanned vehicles.

The FAA authorized the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department to use drones for law enforcement missions in March 2013. Canadian dronemaker Draganflyer and California drone company Aerovironment have both partnered with the sheriff’s department to test their small drones. In May, the department used a drone during a police mission for the first time.

We passed a home with “Libertarian: Less Government, More Freedom” painted on the side.

In Seattle, a plan for police to use drones was scuttled by the mayor before it had even taken off, following outcry and protest by privacy advocates. I asked North Dakota Lieutenant Governor Drew Wrigley why that didn’t happen in Grand Forks. “We don’t have that many Black Helicopters types,” he said, before quickly clarifying, “There’s a lot of trust in institutions here.” He mentioned the state’s status as the best-run in the nation, according to financial news company 27/7 Wall Street. Of course, not everyone in North Dakota would agree with Wrigley. Driving back from a tour of Grand Forks Air Force Base, we passed a home with “Libertarian: Less Government, More Freedom” painted on the side.

In an effort to gain community support for drone use, the University of North Dakota created the Unmanned Aerial Systems Research Compliance Committee, an academic ethics assembly that reviews and approves proposals for drone use. The committee’s meetings are open to the public. I spoke with committee members Barry Milavetz and Thomasine Heitkamp about the project. Milavetz has a background in medicine; Heitkamp in social work. While neither comes from law enforcement or aviation, they both have extensive experience in the ethics of academic research.

The keys to a successful drone program are community standards, feedback, and public notification, Heitkamp and Milavetz told me. These standards, adopted voluntarily by the University of North Dakota and accepted by the sheriff’s department, may have influenced the FAA’s drone roadmap, which issued privacy guidelines that seem to be based on the committee’s work.

Test sites stand to benefit from an economic windfall, with new industry and jobs springing up around domestic drones.

One example of the committee’s influence is the sign pictured at the top of this page, which informs people driving by that a police drone is in use. Another example comes from a major concert, which prompted a tremendous influx of traffic into Grand Forks. The city, with a population of 53,000, expected thousands more visitors, and the sheriff’s department wanted to use drones to better manage the traffic. The public safety benefit was there–it’s easier to spot and resolve traffic problems from above. But flying cameras can make people uneasy. Heitkamp and Milavetz both discussed the challenge of data retention: what happens to the video recorded by the drone? Is it stored indefinitely, and if so, by whom, and who can gain access to it? In the case of the concert, the committee tried to balance the safety benefits and privacy concerns by allowing the drones to stream live video, but not record it for future use. And they were only allowed to film cars, which matter for traffic snarls, and not people, which largely don’t.

If all this sounds pretty mundane for a future of flying robots, that’s because it is. The essential part of making drones work in Grand Forks, at least according to the officials I spoke with, seemed to be trust–the sheriff’s department voluntarily adopted the university’s standards; the university took their role as researchers and community stewards seriously; and the research compliance committee sought public input on all decisions about drone use.

Now that the FAA has selected North Dakota as a test site, the state will begin rolling out programs that have already been implemented on a small scale in Grand Forks. By participating in the FAA’s research project, North Dakota, Alaska, Virginia, Nevada, Texas, and New York all stand to benefit from an economic windfall, with new industry and jobs springing up around domestic drones. For now, though, the future of unmanned aircraft is still in beta.