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Nation's first BVLOS UAS operations approved

Posted 1/06/17 (Fri)

By Patrick C. Miller | January 05, 2017

Now it’s official. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has given the Northern Plains UAS Test Site based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, the approval to phase in the operation of large unmanned aircraft for beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations.

The week after U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., brought U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein to North Dakota to tour the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park adjacent to the base, the FAA confirmed what the senator announced during a news conference with the general.

The agency authorized the UAS test site to begin using ground-based sense-and-avoid technologies as it phases into BVLOS operations. The action outlines a path for unique testing and flight operations not widely available in the national airspace. The authorization allows for a large-platform UAS to take off from Grand Sky at the Grand Forks Air Force Base without the need for a manned chase aircraft.

The first two tenants at Grand Sky are General Atomics, which flies Predators and Reapers from its UAS Training Academy, and Northrop Grumman, which supports Global Hawk missions from the Air Force base. U.S. Customs and Border Protection also flies the General Atomics Predator B from the base about 20 miles west of Grand Forks.

“This authorization will help companies like General Atomics, Northrop Grumman and future tenants at the Grand Sky technology park test and evaluate complex UAS operations possible nowhere else in the nation,” Hoeven said. “It also makes North Dakota an attractive place for government agencies like NASA, the Air Force and the Department of Homeland Security to integrate UAS into the national airspace system.”

Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, said, “Defining the requirements to remove the need for a chase aircraft to conduct long range flights at higher altitudes is another step closer to fully integrating UAS into the national airspace system.”

The approval was based on a concept of operations that was developed in collaboration with the test site, industry partners, local and regional air traffic community, and the FAA.

“Low traffic and population density, along with state of the art radar makes our location ideal for BVLOS testing,” Flom said.

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who also worked with the FAA and the Obama administration to secure the BVLOS authorization, said, “It’s encouraging to see FAA move ahead on this authorization after pressing the administration, and I look forward to helping expand North Dakota’s leadership in UAS even further in the coming year."

According to the North Dakota Dept. of Commerce, the state has invested $37 million to advance UAS research and development and is collaborating with organizations statewide to build the emerging unmanned aircraft industry. 

“North Dakota will be the first state to implement this phased approach to unmanned aircraft beyond visual line of sight, reinforcing its well-deserved reputation as a national leader in aviation and UAS research,” said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. “The state’s significant financial commitment to UAS research and development continues to pay dividends as we strive to diversify the economy through innovation and emerging technologies."