North Dakota leaders: Lease is important step for drones, but government should take next step

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FARGO, North Dakota — North Dakota officials on Wednesday celebrated a lease agreement with the U.S. Air Force that paves the way for an unmanned aircraft business and technology park, but they said the project won't be complete until the federal government establishes rules for flying commercial drones.

The military is providing 217 acres on the Grand Forks Air Force Base for the Grand Sky park, which will have aerospace and defense technology giant Northrop Grumman as its anchor tenant. The 1.2 million-square-foot facility will include multiple buildings, four of which will be hangars.

The project is expected to bring 3,000 jobs to the area, said Republican U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, of North Dakota.

"This is a tremendous opportunity not only for the base, the county and their partners, but also for our nation as we stay on the cutting edge of technology and maintain our position as the leader in global aviation research," Hoeven said about the lease agreement.

The park was driven by the state's designation as one of six national sites for drone testing. The North Dakota range was first to begin operations, but some are worried that the momentum might be slowed by the Federal Aviation Administration's rule-making procedures.

The FAA's plans on small drones "can't happen soon enough," said Al Palmer, the director of the unmanned aircraft program at the University of North Dakota.

"That will give us some guidelines for training standards, operating standards, policies and procedures. At least give us some idea where we think the FAA is going," Palmer told The Associated Press. "We're very excited about what has been happening, but there are still a few more steps."

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska have introduced a bill meant to remove regulatory barriers that would inhibit drone research.

Heitkamp said she's proud of the progress to expand the unmanned aircraft industry in North Dakota "but we can't stop with today's celebration."

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