It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a—drone?

Jun 6, 2014

By Averi Haugesag
NNAF News Fellow | The University of North Dakota

What someone thinks of drones depends on two things: Who it’s pointed at and who’s holding the controller.

“Ask [an] American, ‘Do you approve of using drones to kill an Al Qaeda guy in Waziristan?’ They say ‘Yeah, absolutely,’ said Tom Blanton, the director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University. “You ask an American citizen, ‘Would you be comfortable with the FBI using drones to chase burglars here in the U.S.?’ [They would say] ‘Nope, because it’s surveillance of me,’” Blanton adds.

Drones, also known as Unmanned Arial Systems, are a fairly new, yet already are a controversial technology. According to a CBS News 60 Minutes episode, “Drones Over America,” UAS will become a multi-billion dollar industry revolutionizing everything from farming techniques to delivering pizzas to your doorsteps. In North Dakota, they are a fast-growing program at the University of North Dakota and the new core business of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“I think one of the reasons why North Dakota is one of the test centers on testing remotely piloted aircraft systems into the air shed is that we’ve got the airbase, we’ve got border patrol up there and we’ve got a very vibrant general aviation community,” said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND.



In 2006, UND in Grand Forks, ND, agreed to become a center for UAS research, education and training. In 2009, The Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department joined forces with the UND aviation department to bring police enforcement to new heights—literally.

“I think UAS is the cutting edge of aviation right now,” said Alan Fraizer, an associate professor of aerospace science within the university.

Fraizer said, with authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, the unmanned aircraft systems’ jurisdiction covers more than 12,000 square miles and 16 counties stretching from the southern end of Grand Forks County to the northern Canadian border.

According to an article written by Stephen J. Lee for the Grand Forks Herald, in February of 2014, because the Grand Forks Police Department and the UND aviation department teamed up, the county’s sheriffs department has used UAS systems nine times.

Some were used in populated areas—and they received zero complaints.

“This is going to be the future,” said Grand Forks County Sheriff Robert Rost.



In June 2011, The Grand Forks Air Force Base welcomed in the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a UAS system that provided intelligence and surveillance abilities.

Sheriff Robert Rost said, “This aircraft [could] save lives, not only those responding, but maybe the people in the incident itself.”

According to an article by Airman 1st Class Derek VanHorn of the 319th Airbase Wing Public Affairs, “The aircraft can survey large geographic areas with pinpoint accuracy, without impacting civilian aircraft routes. The imagery provides the most current information available during contingency or crisis situations.”

As UAS technology is evolving and the Global Hawk is being tested, the U.S. is trying to integrate these UAS systems into a regular flying environment, starting with the runway on the GFAFB. In coming months, the GFAFB hopes the aircraft will be able to practice surveillance techniques and maybe even make its way overseas.



According to Brandi Jewett of the Grand Forks Herald, in March of 2013 the GFAFB released an economic impact report showing the drone research economic impact increased $13.8 million, up 7 percent from the previous fiscal year.


More Drones, more jobs

The Grand Forks community has gotten so involved with the UAS; The county, along with the Base Realignment Impact Committee and the Center for Innovation Foundation, plans to create a brand new state-of-the-art business and technology park, expected to open early in 2014.

A park? What kind of park?

According to the Grand Sky website, the GFAFB is proposing to lease 225 acres for the park’s development. The park will provide facilities for UAS development, testing and training. Essentially, the park plans on capitalizing and expanding on the research being done at UND and other research institutions.

The Grand Sky brochure said, “Grand Sky will work to build partnerships based on using UAS for civilian as well as government purposes. Utilizing UAS capabilities for energy, precision agriculture and law enforcement/first responder applications, is a growing and important element Grand Sky will create location and investment opportunities around.”



An article by PBS Newshour’s “The Rundown” blog’s article, “How are Drones Used in the U.S.?,” provides useful definitions: “Drones are remotely piloted aircrafts that can be the size of a Boeing 737 or as small as a magazine.” These systems can either be very complex or rather simple. More sophisticated cameras are able to monitor people and their movements from great distances. Some may even have night vision installed for late-night surveillance.

According to “Drones Over America,” all drones navigate through a GPS system. The sensor on the drone tells them exactly where they should be and how to get back to where they came from. This way, wind and other factors cannot knock them off their path.

Unmanned vehicles can be used for an astonishing variety of things once they are certified, said the article, “How are Drones Used in the U.S.”

“Its the action, not the technology, that scares me,” said U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND.



Because of the varying size and camera abilities, drones are able to fly low to the ground to survey different things better than ever before. Using drones, “Drones Over America” said, farmers can fly one over their crops to take pictures and see where their plants need to be watered; firefighters can monitor fires and see where they are moving; responders can fly around national disaster sites to view damages and find people who may need help; and much more.

An article by Matt Smith of CNN— “Flying Drone Peers into Japan’s Damaged Reactors”—claims these UAS are also a great way to keep people out of harm’s way. Japan’s engineers chose to use drones to fly in and take pictures of damaged reactors at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Because of potential radioactivity, Japan decided drones could be their safest and best resource. Because no one is physically piloting the system from inside it, people no longer need to worry about putting other people in potentially life-threatening situations.



A variation in UAS models leads to a variation in the type of people who are able to fly them. As drones are being developed and the technology is evolving, they are being used not only by university researchers and the FBI, but also by “average Joes too.” CBS reporter Morley Safer said it best, “Sophisticated as they are, any idiot can fly one.”

On, anyone can find a drone within his or her price range.

Should we think this is cool? 

Or should our country be worried?

Although some people feel the use of a UAS may come with a plethora of benefits and convenience, others are left wondering if these systems may violate their personal privacy.

Cramer, who is on the U.S. space and technology committee, said we need to ask ourselves, “What’s more important, our personal privacy or our personal safety?”

“If an unmanned aircraft flies 20 feet above your house, you probably have an expectation that that’s your house, [they] can’t do that. But if Google Maps takes a picture of your house and can see a car in your driveway, do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy from Google Maps? See, these issues are challenging in the national security arena, and that’s kind of where they’ve been amped up. This clearly is a new technology that needs to be discussed,” said Heitkamp.



As the technology evolves, the FAA is trying to set some new rules for the skies.

“I think what the administration is going to end up having to do on drones is what they had to do on the metadata and the other programs,” said Blanton, “which is come a lot cleaner with the legal rationales and review process of what they go through before they use drones.”

The fact anyone can buy a drone and use it however they please is “pretty unnerving to say the least,” said Cramer.

“Do I think there will ever be, in the United States, a general public acceptance of the use of drones in law enforcement? I don’t think so,” said Blanton. “I think there’s too much libertarianism in all of us as Americans to really let the degree of surveillance happen that’s the norm on the streets of London.”

“To me, unmanned vehicles are just like any other technology. I don’t think it’s the technology that’s the issue. I don’t find these any more concerning than piloted aircrafts. They’re just another tool that can be used for good or harm. It certainly heightens our senses. At the same time we have GPS on our cars. [I think] we get hung up on technology because we imagine the abuse.”