North Dakota Department of Transportation part of drone program

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The North Dakota Department of Transportation was selected last year as one of 10 participants for a drone integration program that has become somewhat of a race to see who can find the next best thing to help quickly and safely incorporate drones into the national airspace.

The NDDOT last month became the first state government agency granted a waiver to fly unmanned aircraft over people, which wasn’t necessarily a surprising announcement given the state’s background that includes the nation’s first done business park and a company that supplies done pilots around the world. What was a bonus, state officials say, is that the Federal Aviation Administration permit extends for four years. The first waiver the state received to fly over people was for two months, when the Red River was flooding.

“It shows that the FAA, while it might not be opening the flood gates, is opening its arms to a select few for longer durations of time,” said Matt Dunlevy, president and CEO of SkySkopes, a North Dakota company that operates drones for the DOT and other entities around the country. “Here, we don’t go along to get along. We’re in it to win it.”

FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory did not return an email message left by The Associated Press.

Other entities in the program are the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; city of San Diego; city of Reno, Nevada; Virginia Tech Center for Innovative Technology; Memphis-Shelby County Airport in Tennessee; the University of Alaska-Fairbanks; and two other state transportation departments, in North Carolina and Kansas. The Lee County Mosquito Control District in Florida was selected but dropped out of the program, mainly because of the unexpected costs for flying large drones.

There is no direct federal funding for the program. The North Dakota Legislature has ponied up about $77 million for drone research and development.

The waiver to fly over people is the second major expansion of UAS operations in North Dakota, after the state received permission in April to fly beyond the line of sight of the pilot and without a chase plane throughout about 100 miles of the Red River Valley.

“Through NDDOT’s pilot program, we are getting valuable data to create regulations, policy and guidance that ensures safety while enabling innovation,” FAA Acting Administrator Dan Elwell said in a statement.

The drones are equipped with a parachute recovery system designed by ParaZero SafeAIr, an Israeli company that first flew a Phantom drone over people when fans were tailgating in Fargo before the football game between North Dakota State and South Dakota State. When a drone fails, the system shuts down the rotors and deploys a parachute. Company officials say stopping the rotors avoid laceration injuries and entanglement with the parachute’s cords. A warning buzzer warns bystanders below about incoming danger from above, in order to move out of harm’s way.

“Hopefully it’s one of those things you will never have to deploy.” said Buchholz, who manages the NDDOT drone integration program..

Buchholz said that contrary to the words of the waiver, the intent is not to fly over people. But it could be necessary in certain cases like emergency situations, especially in urban areas.

Dunlevy said such a waiver will allow his pilots to string transmission lines in downtown areas, among other things. His company, which is a mainstay in the North Dakota oil patch, is currently working with Xcel Energy on building a transmission line, a task unique to SkySkopes that is much more dangerous and intrusive when performed by helicopters and heavy machinery.

“You literally don’t have to put someone’s life on the line when you are stringing those lines over people,” Dunlevy said.

Minnesota-based Xcel also provides energy to customers in Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin. It was the first utility in the country to receive FAA approval to fly drones beyond line of sight of the pilot for inspections.