It's three in the afternoon in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The temperature hovers somewhere around -5 degrees. Al Frazier, deputy sheriff and assistant aviation professor at the University of North Dakota, watches as his colleague Trevor Woods sets up an Unmanned Aircraft System - or what many of us refer to as a drone - about 30 feet away in an open, snow-covered field not far from campus. About a dozen local law enforcement officers have come to watch the aircraft take flight.
To the unfamiliar, the UAS has the appearance of a toy, something a 10-year-old boy might fight under the tree Christmas morning. It's 3 feet wide, weighs just five and a half pounds and is operated remotely with a hand-held device. It has four propellers and is equipped with a small camera at the base.
These are not the drones of the CIA. They're not armed and do not eliminate terrorists. UAS advocates prefer the non-weaponized UAS moniker. But UAS-es are essentially the same technology as drones, albeit stripped down. UAS-es are nimble aircraft with no pilots, able to carry some payload, often a video or still camera. Its usage is flexible and still being invented, from law enforcement to a number of burgeoning commercial applications.
Woods, a lead instructor and pilot at UND's Aerospace program, signals Frazier that the small aircraft is ready for launch. The officers then gather around Frazier, who's holding a monitor displaying what the camera sees.
Finally, the propellers on the AeroVironment Cube buzz to life, and the UAS is airborne and transmitting video of the icy terrain below. The on-looking officers, who are braving the bone-chilling cold, get a 15 minute demonstration of a machine that Frazier, and many others in the Grand Forks Unmanned Aircraft Systems program at UND, believe will be a game-changer in the future of law enforcement.
"You can operate these aircraft for a fraction of the cost of what a manned aircraft unit would cost an agency," Frazier later explains while in the much warmer halls of the UND Clifford building.
At first glance, the tall, silver-haired Frazier appears to be an unlikely front man for such a cutting edge technology. A cop with three decades in a number of police and sheriff's departments, Frazier is careful with his words and the security of his UAS-es. But his enthusiasm still bursts through his measured speech.
Surrounded by a wide variety of UAS models, Frazier says he wishes he had this technology when he was a young cop. The UAS-es help "increase situational awareness" for officers in the event of a criminal pursuit, a flood or even a traffic jam. The aircrafts also provide "a perspective that deputies on the ground would not easily get," says Frazier.
Drones: The Future Is Already Here
In December, the FAA named North Dakota, more specifically the North Dakota Department of Commerce, as one of six public entities around the country to develop unmanned aircraft system research and test sites. Other locations in Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia we also selected.
But in a way, the future is already here in the Peace Garden State.
Grand Forks is home to the US military base that houses the predator drone, the University of North Dakota was the first to launch an undergraduate program for UAS pilots, and the sheriff's department has already deployed its four UAS-es to assist in missions. Law enforcement officials say the aircrafts have been used to help bust a sex predator, investigate traffic accidents, and when a man went missing a recent flood, deputies deployed their UAS-es alongside choppers, and found the truck, though the driver had died.
Robert Becklund, the executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Test Site, can't stop grinning when the subject of UAS-es in his home state comes up.
"We’re like the new Kitty Hawk here of aviation, if you will, in Grand Forks," said Becklund while on a tour of UND's Aerospace facility. "It’s pretty exciting to be part of this new, developing technology and creating the procedures and stuff that’s going to allow flight of unmanned aircraft, for commercial purposes in the United States.”
Becklund was even more optimistic when asked about the possibilities of UAS-es beyond North Dakota. Specifically, the likelihood of Amazon delivering parcels to their customers via the small, unmanned aircrafts as announced by CEO Jeff Bezos last year.
"The day will come probably that we’ll be able to do that," says Becklund. The challenge, he cautions, "is how to get that aircraft, that (Bezos) displayed, safely into and urban environment without hitting themselves or something else and safely landing somewhere where you can drop off a package and then go back to the base and get another one.”
With the development or even discussion of UAS technology in the public setting come the many ethical concerns. Just last year, a plan by Seattle police to start deploying drones was scrapped by the mayor and chief of police when residents voiced concerns over privacy.
The University of North Dakota already has a procedure in place for such concerns, says Becklund. It's put together a research and compliance committee made up of government officials and members of the public who have the authority to amend or even deny any scheduled UAS flights.
But most of the locals don't seem to be too concerned.
"I don’t think they’re hovering in my backyard or anything, looking in my windows," said Grand Forks resident Terri Lawson.
Fellow citizen Brooke Reinert isn't worried about her privacy either.
"I think it’ll be cool to see the things up in the air," she said.
Tomorrow’s Drone Pilots
Test-flying UAS-es in Grand Forks, as well as advancing the technology, are just a few things students in UND's Aerospace program are working on. Many of them are also trained pilots who build their own aircrafts as part of the undergraduate degree. They are the drone pilots of tomorrow and betting their job prospects will be endless when the FAA draws up its rules on UAS usage in the country.
In a classroom displaying a half-dozen functioning UAS-es - some as big as 3 feet long, some as tiny as about 4 inches in diameter - senior Jacob Manlove says the future is bright for UAS trained professionals.
"I see this as probably the same sort of revolution that happened when the jet engine was invented," he says. "It’s going to change aviation and the rest of the world that much."