After the pomp and circumstance of last year’s event announcing North Dakota had been designated one of six national test sites for unmanned aerial systems, the real work is set to begin.

The certificates of authorization could be approved in May, which would mean at least one of the projects could be up and running by the end of June.

Officials have submitted applications for certificate of authorization (COA) waivers to the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct research projects near Carrington, N.D., and near Devils Lake. Those projects would be the first two projects conducted here under the FAA test site designation.

The Carrington site would be led by North Dakota State University researchers for precision agriculture purposes. The Devils Lake project would involve UND biology researchers tracking wildlife.

While the higher education officials conduct their own research, the FAA will only be interested in the raw data recorded during flights. That would include flight duration, weather conditions and whether there were any incidents.

“It just so happens you can kill two birds with one stone,” said Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training.

Palmer is expecting the COAs to be approved in May, which could mean at least one of the projects is up and running by the end of June, when the FAA is requiring one of the national test sites to be operational. Palmer said their experience in conducting UAS research gives North Dakota a good head start.

“We are positioning ourselves to make sure that we can support the FAA in accomplishing their objective,” said Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority.

Palmer said manned aircraft will be alerted via a “notice to airman,” which will say where the UAS testing is taking place. Both projects will use small Draganflyer crafts.

Research Projects

The FAA named Grand Forks one of the country’s six UAS test sites in December 2013. Data collected from those sites will help the agency develop policies and procedures for integrating unmanned craft — commonly referred to as “drones” — into the national airspace.

North Dakota’s congressional delegation and local leaders heralded the announcement as a boost to the state’s prospects for being a hub to the UAS industry. The FAA administrator, Michael Huerta, is scheduled to visit Grand Forks later this month to observe the city’s UAS activities.

John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist at the NDSU extension office, is the principal investigator for the Carrington UAS project. He said part of their research will include comparing data obtained from the UAS and data gathered from the ground. That will give them an idea of how accurate UAS systems are, Nowatzki said.

Robert Newman, an associate professor in UND’s biology department who is helping to lead the other initial UAS research project, said they are hoping to survey elk, deer and bison in the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve near Devils Lake. That work is typically done by observers in manned planes, Newman said, but researchers are interested in doing it more safely and efficiently.

“And UAS is an obvious potential solution to this problem,” he said.