North Dakota Sheriff's Agency Wins UAV Night Approval

 - April 4, 2014, 3:29 PM
AeroVironment's Qube quadcopter is shown on display. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The Grand Forks, N.D., Sheriff’s Department announced in late March that it has received FAA authorization to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) throughout its jurisdiction at night, making it the first law enforcement agency in the U.S. to gain such authorization.

The Grand Forks agency collaborates with the University of North Dakota (UND) school of aerospace sciences to operate UAS and uses the AeroVironment Qube and Draganfly Innovations’ Draganflyer small rotary-wing aircraft. It has deployed its UAS unit nine times since May 2013 on incidents ranging from documenting serious traffic accidents to searching for wanted suspects. The unit has five missions overall: searching for missing persons, searching for serious crime suspects, assessing disasters, documenting crime and accident scenes and monitoring traffic at major events.

In November 2012, the FAA issued a certificate of authorization (COA) to the Grand Forks department permitting it to operate the Draganflyer X6 within 16 counties located in northeastern North Dakota. The additional 15 counties are within the same emergency services mutual aid region as Grand Forks. The original COA allowed operation of the Draganflyer to 400 feet agl, within a defined incident perimeter during daytime visual conditions. It required the department to file a notice to airmen (Notam) and notify relevant ATC facilities one hour prior to launch.

The UAS unit trained for more than 18 months before obtaining the COA. Pilots received training from factory representatives; sensor system operators completed a 24-hour sensor system operator/visual observer course administered by UND. The unit completed an FAA compliance inspection in September 2012.

“Unit flights are always conducted within a very limited ‘defined incident perimeter’ maintained by law enforcement personnel,” the sheriff’s department said on March 28, after receiving the night-flight authorization. “The unmanned aircraft are always operated within line of sight of the ground-based pilot and are never utilized for routine patrol.”