Regional efforts to research integrating unmanned aircraft into national airspace received a funding boost Thursday to the tune of $3 million.
The U.S. Department of Defense funding will be invested at Grand Forks Air Force Base and Fargo's Hector International Airport to make technical upgrades to their digital airport surveillance radar systems.
The upgrade will provide clearer resolution for imaging, allowing personnel to keep an eye on aircraft flying beyond line of sight, which is not permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"The resolution is so good, that even without an unmanned aircraft having a transponder, that you can see the aircraft in the airspace," U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said.
The radar ideally would replace efforts necessary to keep an unmanned aircraft within the sight of a person, including chase planes that follow the aircraft while in flight or chains of ground observers.
Grand Forks Air Force Base will receive $1.5 million to upgrade its DASR-11 radar.
Another $500,000 will be used to start a software upgrade for the radar system at Hector International Airport, first funding a study of surrounding airspace and then the installation of the upgrade in 2017.
The remaining $1 million was awarded to NASA, which is developing software that would manage low-altitude UAS air traffic. The software is being tested in North Dakota through a collaboration between the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and UND.
All of these initiatives are part of a larger ongoing national effort to integrate unmanned aircraft into airspace, which has run into a number of snags as the FAA explores ways to accomplish this as safely as possible.
"This is something where there are a million steps in this journey, and we have to be taking steps every single day," Hoeven said.
The funding announcements came during a stop Hoeven made in Grand Forks to discuss community priorities for the FAA reauthorization bill making its way through Congress.
The bill tackles numerous aviation topics, including unmanned aircraft policy.
Part of the bill is the renewal of the FAA's UAS test site program, which designated six site locations around the country in 2013 to conduct research into the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
Should the provision be removed from the bill, the test site program would expire in February. North Dakota's test site, which is headquartered in Grand Forks, has been operational since April 2014. Its crews logged nearly 170 flights last year.
"Especially here in North Dakota, we're just getting going," Executive Director Robert Becklund said. "I can't speak for the other test sites, but I can tell you we're making a difference here."
Losing the designation could make receiving approval for operating funds from the North Dakota Legislature, he added.
About $8 million in state money has been allocated to establishing the test and operating, though contracts it has completed for clients total about $1 million so far.