The first of six testing sites for commercial drones is officially operational. Today, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that a site in North Dakota has been certified to begin tests with the Draganflyer X4ES, a roughly 3-foot-wide, 5-pound quadcopter that comes equipped with a camera. These tests will begin around May 5th, months before the mid-year deadline, and the certificate will remain valid for the next two years. In the long term, the site will help the FAA develop rules for small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which Congress has said must be in place by 2015.
Test site operators will be putting the drone to work in North Dakota State University's agriculture research division, where they hope to prove it can effectively check soil quality and the status of crops — agriculture is one of the most promising areas for small commercial drones, since they can cheaply capture and analyze footage of fields from overhead. While that's the primary mission for now, they'll also collect safety and maintenance data that the FAA can ultimately use to set airworthiness standards. The first flights will take place at the university, but a second set of missions this summer will take the drones to North Dakota's Sullys Hill National Game Preserve.
As the year progresses, other test sites will be coming online in Alaska, New York, Nevada, Virginia, and Texas. The diverse locations mean that drones will be tested in a variety of climates and environments, with support from universities and private industry groups. Like many of the other sites, North Dakota has a history in unmanned aircraft development. The University of North Dakota launched a four-year degree program for UAV pilots in 2010, and in 2012, it formed a voluntary research committee to address the legal and ethical concerns that commercial drones have raised nationwide. With almost every state considering some sort of legislation around UAVs, these questions will only become more prominent as the sites begin operation.