"We're sitting here on pins and needles," said Al Palmer, director of UND
's unmanned aircraft systems center.
The rules would pertain to the use of small unmanned aerial systems, which are defined as devices less than 55 pounds. What exactly will be included in this draft is anyone's guess but those in the industry have a few ideas.
If included, requirements for UAS pilots are especially of interest for UND, Palmer said, adding rumors are circulating that it could be as simple as a certification course or as complex as getting a pilot's license.
The long-delayed release of the draft was expected to happen before the end of 2014, but officials now hope to see it later this month. Once released, the rules must undergo a public comment period officials expect to last at least a year. After the comments are reviewed and addressed, the finalized rules will be released in 2016 or even 2017.
"It'll be really interesting to see how the industry behaves in the next two years," said David Dvorak, founder of UAS sensor development company Field of View in Grand Forks.
Right now, Dvorak said the FAA just needs to release the proposed rules.
"It's fine if they're not perfect right away, but we just need to get something to give some hard and fast guidelines for people," he added.
Perhaps the most anticipated part of the rules would be the potential inclusion of guidelines for commercial operations.
"We hope that there are guidelines because people are using these things now," Palmer said. "The FAA doesn't have the manpower or staffing to go out and observe everything that's going on."
Commercial use of these aircraft is currently banned by the FAA, unless a company is granted a special exemption by the agency. Companies that have received exemptions so far are mostly involved in the motion picture industry.
In North Dakota, agriculture will likely emerge as the main arena of commercial use for the devices. Other industries such as energy, transportation and health care are also expected to adopt the use of UAS in some capacity in the state.
Dvorak's company focuses on providing sensors for agricultural use, relying on sales to international customers and universities during the commercial use ban.
He says there is a fear among business owners that the rules may be too restrictive.
"There is a possibility that the FAA could release these rules and they're so restrictive that you can't really do commercial operations," Dvorak said.
As FAA guidelines stand now, hobbyists are allowed to operate unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds within their line of sight and under an altitude of 400 feet. They are asked to contact an airport if they plan to fly within 5 miles of the facility and to avoid flying near any manned aircraft or at night.
Public agencies such as law enforcement and universities are required to obtain a certificate of authorization from the FAA to legally fly unmanned aircraft. These certificates take about 60 days or less to receive, according the administration's website.
The Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office has authorization to fly in 16 North Dakota counties. So far, the office's devices have been used to survey accident and crime scenes, search for missing persons and find suspects fleeing from officers.
At least two research projects overseen by UND and North Dakota State University also have been greenlighted by UND's UAS Research Compliance Committee. That committee vets research proposals brought to the university.
This summer, unmanned aircraft monitored wildlife at Sully's Hill Wildlife Preserve
near Devils Lake and crops at NDSU
's research facility near Carrington, N.D.
More research proposals are expected to be up for discussion at the compliance committee's Jan. 16 meeting.
Release of the small UAS rules was delayed in part by privacy concerns voiced to the FAA.
A study conducted in the summer of 2014 hints operators likely won't run into too many privacy concerns in northeast North Dakota.
More than 70 percent of residents surveyed by two UND professors said they did not have concerns about UAS encroaching on their personal privacy. The survey polled 647 residents in 16 northeastern counties about their feelings toward various types of unmanned aircraft use.
When it came to businesses, just over half of respondents said they had no concerns and 64 percent weren't worried about individuals operating the devices.
The preliminary findings of the study were released by Thomasine Heitkamp and Cindy Juntunen — both members of the research compliance committee — at the 2014 UAS Action Summit held in June in Grand Forks. While results were favorable for the industry, officials acknowledge there are still concerns with UAS flight.
"The fear out there is there is a risk that somebody's out there flying these things and since there are no rules per se ... we may be operating these things in an unsafe manner too close to an airport where we could have an accident or an incident," Palmer said.
Federal data show an increase of UAS sightings and near-misses with manned aircraft being reported to the FAA as of June, but none of those incidents occurred in North Dakota.
In advance of the small rule release and a holiday season where people could possibly find a UAS under their Christmas tree, the FAA launched a safety campaign and educational website.
The Know Before You Fly website gives users a primer on types of unmanned aircraft use and the rules associated with each.
North Dakota UAS Industry on Edge Waiting for Release of Proposed Rules - Grand Forks Herald