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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao speaks Wednesday, May 31, 2017, at the Drone Focus Conference at the Fargo Civic Center. David Samson / Forum News Service

High hopes, big challenges: U.S. Transportation Secretary outlines need for modernization with continued rise of drone technology

FARGO—The line between air and ground travel is getting blurrier with the rise of self-driving vehicles and drones, but the U.S. Secretary of Transportation said there are some clear hurdles to overcome to keep the technology moving smoothly.

Elaine Chao said Wednesday, May 31, that the Donald Trump administration has started working to address challenges of the burgeoning unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, industry. But a top priority is simply modernizing the air traffic control system, she said during remarks at the third annual Drone Focus Conference in Fargo.

The aviation industry is experiencing a "rapid evolution" of technology and increasing air traffic volume, Chao said. By 2020, the nation's airspace will need to handle 1 billion traveling passengers annually, and air freight is projected to more than double in the next 30 years. There's also a growing demand for integrating unmanned drone flights into that congested airspace.

"Without change, our current system will not be able to keep pace with these numbers," she said.

That's why she said the administration is proposing to spin off air traffic control from the oversight of the Federal Aviation Administration and turn it into an independent, not-for-profit cooperative to increase airspace capacity.

Leading the way

During his remarks, Gov. Doug Burgum said the 600 conference attendees at the Fargo Civic Center already recognize that autonomous vehicles are coming soon.

He cited "unstoppable forces" like the evolution of computing power and data storage, improvements in materials science and battery technology, and other changes that add up to economic forces that will only make drones and self-driving vehicles more important.

Leaders can respond to this rapid change by rejecting, ignoring or embracing it, and Burgum said North Dakota chooses to embrace the changing technology.

"We're here to say that we are open for business for all of you," he said.

Burgum also announced the formation of a new state UAS Detection and Counter-UAS Task Force, which will explore ways North Dakota can serve as a national center to detect drone flights and counter "nefarious" usage of the technology.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the state has been working in the UAS field since 2005 and already leads the country, including being named the first UAS national test site.

North Dakota was also the first state to get approval for beyond-line-of-sight drone flights at high altitudes, meaning drone operators can fly large vehicles without following in a chase plane or spotting from the ground. He said that designation allows companies like General Atomics to train drone pilots in Grand Forks.

Hoeven's now working to get FAA approval to fly beyond-line-of-sight at low altitudes, another first that could allow companies like Amazon to develop services like drone delivery.

"All of these are key steps, additional steps in the future of unmanned aerial systems," Hoeven said. "Let's develop them here."

There are other challenges beyond the need to modernize air traffic control, Chao said, including coming up with the right regulations to address security, safety and privacy concerns. But she said the general public has to accept this technology, too, and that will be the work of the industry representatives and insiders at the Fargo conference.

"You and other innovative leaders have got to step up and share with the public your understanding of new technology and address legitimate public concerns, because the integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technological challenge to aviation since the beginning of the jet age," she said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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