GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota achieved a “major industry milestone” on Dec. 21 with first-ever test flights that will open up the skies for broader commercial use of drones, the university said.

UND and research partners from Harris Corp. and the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site performed the test flights near Hillsboro. Harris Corp. used a system of integrated ground infrastructure that enables commercial unmanned aircraft to fly farther and safer beyond the visual line of sight.

Mark Askelson, interim executive director of the UND Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) said that this test was historic.

“This is something that an awful lot of people have been working on a long time. It’s challenging and really complicated,” Askelson said. “To get to this point is a big deal. It’s historic.”

The network UND and its partners are working on would be for broader, commercial use. This is a huge economic opportunity worth billions of dollars, Askelson said.

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The flight tested detect-and-avoid technologies as part of a network infrastructure that will enable beyond visual line of sight for commercial UAS operations. Flights beyond visual line of sight will increase effectiveness of UAS in agriculture and infrastructure.

In the spring of 2019, UND and Harris Corp. plan to open a 55-mile-long corridor between Grand Forks and Fargo, creating the drone industry’s first wide-area, multi-user beyond-visual-line-of-sight commercial airspace network in the world.

Askelson said that UND and their partners are working to prove to the Federal Aviation Administration that this kind of flight can be done in a safe manner.