The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

April 15, 2014

Red River Valley touted as drone industry center

THIEF RIVER FALLS (AP) — Dozens of representatives from agriculture, aviation and higher education are meeting in northwestern Minnesota to discuss ways to promote the region as a center for development of the aircraft industry which produces unmanned drones.

U. S. Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Collin Peterson are among those talking Tuesday about joining forces with North Dakota to push the region as a pioneer in the commercial use of drones throughout the nation's airspace.

Grand Forks, N.D., is one of six Federal Aviation Administration test sites to help determine how to safety integrate drones into airspace with conventional aircraft. The director of the test site, Robert Becklund, says agriculture will likely be the first industry to use drones for widespread commercial use. Becklund tells the Star Tribune the Red River Valley is a natural fit for the research.

"Agriculture's the biggest business on both sides of the border here," he said. "This whole region is a perfect place to do this stuff."

The FAA hasn't yet authorized the commercial use of drones, but agribusiness is keenly interested in using unmanned aircraft to analyze fields and crops.

Military pilots at Grand Forks Air Force Base already are flying drones over Afghanistan, the U.S.-Canada border and North Dakota. The colleges in Grand Forks and Thief River Falls offer training for operating drones.

The meeting took place at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls, which offers the nation's first accredited unmanned aircraft maintenance training program and the first two-year degree in geospatial analysis. Combined with drone pilot and sensor technician training programs 50 miles to the west at the University of North Dakota, officials say the region is well-positioned to become a drone technology center.

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