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July 26, 2017

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Drones a possible growth market for North Dakota

WASHINGTON--U.S. and North Dakota officials have big hopes for the growth of what are known as unmanned aircraft systems. And the remote northwestern state has positioned itself well to take advantage of its unique attributes: A first-of-its-kind academic program, an established military presence, a strong commitment from state and federal officials to find funding, and even the weather.

"North Dakota made a conscious decision, several years ago, that they wanted to focus on this," said Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group that promotes unmanned systems and robotics. He added, "North Dakota is one of the leaders and a model that we point to."

The result is a growing footprint for a new and potentially lucrative business: According to a report compiled by AUVSI last year, drones have the potential to create more than 100,000 jobs and more than US$80 billion in economic growth between now and 2025. Domestic drones could yield big rewards for states that invest now, said Greg McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University who researches drones.

"Basically, you're saying that you want to be a hub for technological development, that you want to be the new Silicon Valley," McNeal said. "And that Silicon Valley might be in North Dakota, but it might not be in a state like Texas because of anti-drone legislation."

Becoming a nexus of drone research could build on the state's oil prosperity. Drilling at the Bakken and Three Forks shale formations have led the state's oil production to surge over the past several years, bringing economic stability, population growth and low unemployment.

The push to make North Dakota a drone leader as well got a boost this month when Michael Huerta, the Federal Aviation Administration administrator, announced in Grand Forks that his agency had granted North Dakota a two-year certificate to begin flying small drone test flights. That's the first of six FAA-selected test sites to get such approval. North Dakota is one of six states, along with Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia, picked to research integrating drones into the civilian airspace.

The FAA does not yet allow the commercial use of drones, but is working on operational guidelines and has said as many as 7,500 small commercial drones could be flying within five years of getting widespread access to U.S. skies.

Grand Forks, the location of the FAA's approved test site, is at the center of the state's drone ambitions. The U.S. Air Force is expected in June to finalize a 50-year lease at Grand Sky, an aerospace and technology park in the city. That facility will be anchored by defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. With the FAA's designation, state officials and others hope to attract more investment and interest.

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