The first of six test sites that will conduct research on various aspects of commercial drone use has become operational, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
The FAA gave the go-ahead in April 2014 to the North Dakota Department of Commerce to begin testing a small unmanned aircraft system (UAS) known as the Draganflyer X4ES. The initial goal of testing will be to determine whether the drones can be used to check soil and crop quality for agricultural research. Researchers will also collect safety and maintenance data, which will be used to build a database for UAS maintenance and repair.
“North Dakota has really taken the lead in supporting the growing unmanned aircraft industry,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said in a statement.
The North Dakota Department of Commerce was one of six applicants chosen in late 2013 to operate drone test sites in compliance with the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The law directs the FAA, with help from NASA and the Department of Defense, to establish the test program as part of the effort to integrate drones into the National Airspace System.
The other five site operators, selected from a pool of 25 submissions, are in Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia. Researchers at the sites will investigate various aspects of drone safety and operation.
According to the Associated Press, the FAA’s goal is to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015 and to have commercial drones flying by 2016. The test sites can remain operational until February 2017.
The FAA reports that drones have been operating in the National Airspace System for about two decades, primarily for border security and military-related functions. However, a slate of new uses for unmanned aircraft have been proposed in recent years, including land surveying, environmental monitoring, search and rescue, cargo transport and aerial photography.
The federal agency estimates that as many as 7,500 commercial drones could be flying within five years of unmanned aircraft gaining access to the NAS.
“Unmanned aircraft offer new ways for commercial enterprises and public operators to increase operational efficiency, decrease costs, and enhance safety,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a November 2013 statement.