North Dakota's Highway Patrol is launching drone technology with the help of legislative funding and federal permission to fly unmanned aircraft systems over people.
The patrol on Tuesday officially announced its four‐year authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones over populated areas. A list that the FAA provided to The Bismarck Tribune on Monday when the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department announced its four-year approval showed that the patrol also had been granted the authority.
The North Dakota patrol is the first state highway patrol agency in the country to receive the permission. The Burleigh County Sheriff's Department is only the second county law enforcement agency in the nation to obtain it.
“This waiver will allow North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers the option to safely photograph, measure, and document complicated crash scenes,” Col. Brandon Solberg, the patrol superintendent, said in a statement. “Traditional methods of working on crash scenes and gathering evidence require troopers to block off roadways and stand in lanes of travel, which can cause delays for motorists and unnecessary risk to emergency personnel.”
The ability to fly drones over people also will help the patrol find missing people or fleeing suspects, the agency said.
The patrol does not have any drones, but it has purchased a parachute recovery system that's necessary to receive permission to fly over populated areas. The system designed by Israel-based ParaZero SafeAir shuts down the rotors if a drone fails, deploys a parachute and emits a buzzer to warn bystanders below.
The patrol is in the process of buying a drone. If it works to the agency's satisfaction, the patrol will buy up to three more, basing one in each quadrant of the state, according to Lt. Adam Dvorak.
The Legislature earlier this year approved one-time funding of just under $100,000 for the patrol's drone program over the next two years.
The federal permission for the patrol and the sheriff’s department is part of the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s Integration Pilot Program. The department was selected last year as one of 10 participants nationwide for the program aimed at helping the FAA safely integrate drones into the national airspace. The department has billed the program as an opportunity for state, local and tribal governments to advance drone operations.
The state Transportation Department in June became the first state government agency to get an FAA permit to fly unmanned aircraft over people.