In the booming economy of drone technology, North Dakota has been an early and enthusiastic adopter. The Federal Aviation Administration chose it as one of six official drone test sites, and the entire state permits unmanned flights at night and at altitudes of 1,200 feet (as opposed to daylight and up to 200 feet, as per the rest of the nation). The U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and border patrol all pilot drones from Grand Forks Air Force Base. Adjacent to that, Northrup Grumman is building a facility as the anchor tenant at the Grand Sky unmanned aerial systems business and aviation park—the nation’s first. And the University of North Dakota launched the nation’s first undergraduate program in drone piloting in 2009. ... as oil prices plummet and production drops off, North Dakota sees drones as its chance to develop a bust-proof tech sector. ... This flat state’s chief selling point as a nascent drone industry, though, might not be what it has, but what it lacks: There are fewer people and things to collide with should your craft, as one airman put it, “come into contact with the ground.”
The costs of air traffic control have continued to rise, as has the size of the controller workforce. Decades of steadily increasing air traffic have put excess pressure on air traffic controllers. Planes fly around the clock, and the greenest controllers get saddled with overnight or odd shifts, often stuck in a dark room while senior employees opt for cushy positions in places with little air traffic and good weather. ... It's a mess. But it doesn't have to be this way. ... While the FAA accepted this kind of GPS-based system in theory, it took years to develop compatibility software to allow controllers to receive radar-like position information for their screens. Once this system became operational in Pacific and North Atlantic airspace, it took the FAA more than a decade of testing to adopt a similar program for domestic airspace. In 2003, the FAA put an indefinite hold on development. It wasn't until 2012 that the program relaunched with the capability to begin this year. Even so, it won't be fully operational until 2025. ... The FAA, a government agency, must prove competitive due diligence and receive authorized appropriations from Congress, whose representatives aren't always motivated to close down obsolete facilities, especially if it means losing jobs in their districts. Even the FAA's current plan for bringing in satellite-based nav relies heavily on radar as a backup for GPS surveillance, which reduces funding for a new and modern system. ... Sometimes a controller literally calls the next person in line. Sometimes controllers pass information written on plain old paper. ... What if the business of air traffic control were to break off from the FAA, freeing the system from the bureaucracy of a federal government agency? This isn't just idle talk. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency created by the United Nations to manage aviation standards among its 191 member states, recommends all nations separate air traffic control from aviation safety agencies. While nearly all member countries do so, the United States has not.