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G.F. County sheriff gets OK for night drone use

GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost announced Friday that his department is the first law enforcement agency in the nation granted federal authorization to fly unmanned aerial vehicles at night throughout its jurisdiction.

In a partnership with the University of North Dakota’s aerospace school and two drone makers, the sheriff’s department has been flying small unmanned aerial systems for more than a year and deployed them nine times on official missions.

The Federal Aviation Administration authorized the department to fly drones in 16 counties in northeast North Dakota. The new authorization to also fly drones at night was announced Friday.

Rost and Al Frazier, a UND aviation professor and sheriff’s deputy who usually pilots the small UAS craft, have said working nighttime missions is an important step in developing the potential of UAS use.

A search last year for a fugitive who fled on foot through cornfields west of Portland had to be curtailed because of the lack of authorization to fly the drones at night, Frazier has said. Even so, that search saved countless man-hours of searching, Frazier said.

The UAS partnership is governed by a UND compliance committee that has approved five types of missions for the UAS: searches for missing people; searches for “serious” criminal suspects; disaster assessments; documenting accident and crime scenes, usually mapping for investigative reasons; and monitoring traffic at major events.

The small drones must be flown with sight of the pilot and typically are transported to mission sites in the back of an SUV for the limited flights.

When a call comes in for a possible deployment, Frazier contacts the FAA for authorization for the mission, which usually takes one to two hours, during which time the preparation for the mission is completed.