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North Dakota creates task force to counter threats from rogue UAS activity

FARGO—An unmanned aircraft park near Grand Forks will anchor a North Dakota task force aimed at defending against threats from rogue UAS activity.

The UAS Detection and Counter-UAS Task Force, which will be based at Grand Sky, will coordinate amenities and efforts needed to test countermeasures against threats posed by threatening drones, Gov. Doug Burgum announced Wednesday, May 31, during the Drone Focus Conference in Fargo.

"This task force underscores our commitment to investigating UAS detection and countermeasures for the safety of our citizens and our airspace, as well as opportunities to further diversify our economy," Burgum said in a news release.

The task force will focus on identifying threats by UAS technologies, developing a testing area for countermeasures and allowing operators to "deploy protective technologies in response to identified threats," according to the release.

Tom Swoyer Jr., president of the Grand Sky Development Co., will co-chair the task force with Nicholas Flom, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site's executive director. The task force, which met Wednesday, will report to Lt. Gov. Brett Sanford, who oversees the test site.

"North Dakota's support of the UAS industry makes it the perfect location to conduct this necessary work, and Grand Sky is the ideal base camp for operations," Swoyer said in the news release, adding North Dakota's air traffic is light compared with other parts of the country. "At Grand Sky, companies can identify a technology they want to test and have it in the air the next day, compared to waiting months for runway space with no guarantee that the flight will take off as scheduled."

The concept of counter-UAS tactics is relatively new, Swoyer told the Forum News Service. The new release suggested the "potential for nefarious activities" has increased with the rise of UAS technology in recent years. Research has focused primarily on military applications, but North Dakota also wants to look at commercial applications, the release said.

"There are people who are going to use them for good purposes, and there are people who are going to try to figure out how to use them for bad purposes," Swoyer said. "We have to guard against all of the bad purposes.

Swoyer said military personnel in theaters of conflict are seeing more drone-based attacks, but he also gave other examples like drones being used to transport drugs across the border or arming drones with weapons.

Burgum also suggested rogue drone activity is happening in North Dakota.

"We saw this in our state this last fall when we had civil unrest," Burgum said. "But when you've got the rogue use of drones in domestic protests, along borders, around critical infrastructure, it's highlighted the urgent, urgent need for us to have better solutions for how we counter the nefarious uses of UAS."

Last fall, Dakota Access Pipeline protesters used drones to fly over law enforcement.

It's possible the work the task force does could be used as examples for other states or federal agencies, Swoyer said. Perhaps federal agencies could work with the task force to work on countermeasures, he added.

For now, the task force won't be funded by state dollars, so those who will be a part of the group likely will need to donate their time and resources to make it work. He believes there are people in the UAS industry who are willing to do that.

The task force is expected to include members of the governor's office, Northern Plains, the North Dakota University System, state National Guard and others from the UAS industry.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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