Farmer uses a small drone to check fields

Remotely piloted vehicles and unmanned aircraft, collectively known as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, have revolutionized certain tasks. Allowing UAS into the national airspace will provide new opportunities for private business to apply this technology for civilian purposes. UAS are often preferred for missions that are too "dull, dirty or dangerous" for manned aircraft, or in other words too dull, dirty or dangerous for humans.

There are currently hundreds of models of unmanned aircraft in production and, like manned aircraft, they range in size and capabilities. An unmanned aircraft is one component in a system, often referred to as UAS, that includes ground control stations and other elements. This system allows for remote operation of unmanned aircraft, often from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

The appeal of using UAS stems from their ability to:

  • Be controlled remotely without an on-board pilot.
  • Enter environments that would otherwise prove too dangerous for human life.
  • Remain airborne for extended periods of time.
  • Effectively provide remote operators with precise and accurate information.
  • Scan large geographic areas in short periods of time.

Commercial Uses

UAS technology is being used in the commercial sector in areas such as:


Precision Agriculture

Unmanned aircraft systems reduce the time and manpower needed to perform essential agricultural-related tasks. UAS enhance the producer's ability to monitor crops and livestock. UAS technology is able to alert farmers to insect threats or depleting water and nutrient level problems before they become detrimental to crop growth. UAS also have the capability to analyze pesticide and fertilizer levels, deliver vital nutrients to crop, monitor plant health, and evaluate the growth of a specific field section.

Agriculture applications for UAS include:

  • pesticide spraying
  • crop monitoring
  • livestock tracking
  • yield estimations
  • crop harvesting
  • disease detection and mitigation
  • moisture monitoring

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), once UAS technology is fully integrated into the National Airspace System (NAS), nearly 80% of commercial UAS use will be in the agricultural sector.

Disasters & Emergency Response

UAS prove invaluable in their ability to reach places manned vehicles cannot. UAS allow for monitoring and prediction of flood, tornadoes and forest fires, as well as assisting in search-and-rescue situations.
Advanced infrared cameras can be mounted to UAS to pick up on heat signatures of people trapped in debris and rubble, which can then be used to direct emergency teams to their exact locations. UAS technology can even be used to deploy emergency provisions such as food, water or life rafts to victims of disaster.




Energy Monitoring

UAS can assist in the expansion of exploration of oil, gas and mineral deposits in North Dakota, as well as around the globe. They are able to monitor transmission lines and pipelines, inspect underwater wells, and monitor pollution levels. More widespread use of UAS in this role will help ensure the safe collection, production and distribution of underground or underwater mineral deposits.
Energy companies can also dispatch UAS to detect defective blades on wind turbines. Technicians must scale the towers in all kinds of weather conditions to assess the problem. Prior knowledge (through imagery sent from a UAS) would enable technicians to be more efficient in their preparation to repair or replace defective blades.  

Scientific Research

The applications of UAS technology in collecting scientific research are limitless. UAS are well-suited to collect highly-accurate information in environments that would be impossible or dangerous for humans. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses UAS technology to conduct hurricane, atmospheric, weather, and climate studies in dangerous or high-altitude settings. UAS technology can also be used for:

  • biological research
  • wildlife conservation efforts
  • archeological surveys
  • polar or volcanic research
  • monitoring animal poaching
  • oceanographic research

Other uses include monitoring animal populations, assisting law enforcement and border patrol and surveying land.


Military Uses

Grand Forks Air Force Base

The Grand Forks Air Force Base's primary mission is the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft. It is home to the 69th Reconnaissance Group and the Block 40 RQ-4 Global Hawk, a UAS that provides worldwide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability. 

U.S. Customs & Border Protection

The Grand Forks Sector Board Patrol is responsible for 861 miles of international border between the U.S. and Canada. From the Grand Forks Air Force Base, U.S. Customs & Border Patrol operates two Predator B (MQ-9) aircraft in support of this mission.

North Dakota Air National Guard

The 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard operates the Predator B (MQ-9) in support of military operations around the world.