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FAA bill passes, includes provision for extending drone test site program

The Senate approved a bill Wednesday to extend the Federal Aviation Administration's legal authority another year and keep its unmanned aircraft systems test site program up and running.

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FILE PHOTO: This drone can fly up to 400 feet with proper approval and technically take on winds of up to 50 knots in extreme cases in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, June 19, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)

The Senate approved a bill Wednesday to extend the Federal Aviation Administration's legal authority another year and keep its unmanned aircraft systems test site program up and running.

The bill passed 89-4 and received support from North Dakota Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven.

"North Dakota is on the cutting edge of UAS technology and innovation, and it's critical to have an environment that fosters that creativity," Heitkamp said in a statement.

The bill now goes to the desk of President Barack Obama for his signature. Hoeven authored an amendment included in the legislation that extends the test site program through September 2019.

The move impacts six test sites designated to research the safe integration of unmanned aircraft, also called drones, into the national airspace. Grand Forks is the headquarters of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

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The North Dakota test site has worked on research projects with clients that include using unmanned aircraft to inspect homes for insurance purposes, inspect railways, bridges and other infrastructure, monitor crops and livestock, and simulate beyond line of visual sight flights.

In addition to strengthening UAS development, the bill also contains reforms for air travel safety and consumer protections.

Benefiting travelers are new rules saying airlines will be required to refund bag fees if items are lost or the bags' arrival is delayed and return fees for services that are purchased but not received by customers.

Families also will be allowed to purchase seats near one another and minors can be accompanied by a family member through the security screening process.

Security also should be improved through the bill, which increases the level of vetting aviation employees who have access to secure areas of airports undergo, enhances security for international flights bound for the United States and increases training and preparedness for airport security personnel.

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