GRAND FORKS - Doors could open for North Dakota's unmanned aircraft industry, thanks to a federal pilot program allowing local governments to partner with others in the industry.

But the state will have to prove it is the place to test drone integration if it wants to be one of the few successful candidates, the state's U.S. senators said Friday, Nov. 10.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order late last month that will launch the UAS Integration Pilot Program, a three-year experiment that will give state, local and tribal governments a chance to establish "innovation zones for testing complex UAS operations," according to the executive order. The goal is to integrate unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, into local airspace and to accelerate the testing of UAS operations.

"This is addressing a variety of issues the industry is dealing with it," said Thomas Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co. "One of those issues is, there is a proliferation of growth in local regulations in the use of unmanned aircraft systems-some prohibiting it, some supporting it."

The program would allow successful candidates to form partnerships with other public or private-sector entities. The U.S. Department of Transportation will choose at least five applications to participate in the program.

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The executive order allows communities that want to support drone technology a chance to develop the industry while testing which regulations work, Swoyer said. Grand Forks, for example, is home to Grand Sky, a tech park established west of town that allows companies to expand their UAS capabilities. It also has been used to test federal regulations, can fly multiple drones at once and has the green light to conduct beyond-line-of-sight flights without chaser planes.

"The state of North Dakota has so much to offer this industry," Swoyer said. "Logically, you would think this would be one of the locations chosen, maybe several locations in North Dakota."

It also is a sign the country wants to support the UAS industry, said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

"It's a recognition that we need to move and move more expeditiously than what we have been moving," she said, adding the order is a "step in the right direction."

Governmental entities in North Dakota have a good chance to snag one of the few spots in the program, but it is not a done deal, Hoeven said. The rest of the country is competitive and will want to be a part of the program.

The order doesn't put a limit on the number of partnerships the DOT will approve, but Hoeven said the government likely will choose a small number.

"I think there are going to be five, maybe 10," he said. "It's not going to be hundreds."

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said the FAA would like to emphasize "meaningful partnerships with industry," Hoeven said.

"To me, that says key industry partners," the senator said, adding he wants to focus on industrial companies like Northrop Grumman Corp., General Atomics and General Electric, which owns LM Wind Power in Grand Forks.

North Dakota has UAS capabilities other parts of the country don't have, but it needs to keep searching for "the next thing" to make it even more competitive, Hoeven said.

He said he is trying to convince Amazon, which has a branch in Grand Forks, to test shipping capabilities using drones. In previous conversations, Amazon told Hoeven that Grand Forks would need beyond-line-of-sight capabilities, the ability to fly multiple drones at once and cell towers that could help with low-level command and control operations.

The last one would require a partnership with a cellphone company.

"That is an opportunity to go back to Amazon, which we are doing, and to reach out to Verizon or AT&T," he said.

North Dakota needs to use "every resource available" to show the country the state's UAS capabilities and competitiveness, Heitkamp said.

"Once people know, and once people see what we are doing, I can't just imagine more competitive than any other state in securing one of these pilots," she said.

The DOT has until Jan. 23 to establish the pilot program. Once the program is in place, the DOT will have 180 days to choose and form agreements with the successful governmental jurisdictions who want to participate in the program.

The DOT also can accept new applications for participation in the program a year before the three-year pilot schedule terminates.