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FAA approves night flights for ND drone unit to fly across the nation

Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost. Forum News Service file photo

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—The Federal Aviation Administration has given drone pilots with the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Office permission to fly drones at night anywhere in the country.

Sheriff Bob Rost announced Friday that the FAA issued the authorization to the Northeast Region Unmanned Aircraft Systems Unit about a day after a deputy made a public plea to the federal agency during a helicopter expo earlier this week in Dallas.

The multi-agency unit has permission to fly at night in 18 North Dakota counties, but the Sheriff's Department applied for countrywide regulatory exemptions six months ago, saying it is possible it may be called to give support to other agencies outside its exempt area.

Rost criticized the FAA after it gave electronics giant Intel permission to fly drones at night for the Super Bowl Halftime Show. The 300 drones were equipped with LED lights and formed multiple patterns during a pre-recorded segment that was shot days before the performance that featured Lady Gaga.

Intel has said it pre-recorded its flight patterns because it feared weather could ruin the program. FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory previously said the operation required certain conditions, including weather free of clouds and wind, numerous spotters and "carefully controlled conditions." She added the agency kept air traffic out of the area during the flight.

Rost said he felt approving the night flight in less than six weeks sent a message the entertainment takes priority over public safety. He said Friday in a statement the timing was right "to make the public aware of the FAA's long delays in processing UAS waiver requests from public safety agencies."

"While we are appreciative that our request for nationwide nighttime UAS operations was granted, it is unfortunate that our agency had to resort to making a public request to the FAA in order to have it happen," Rost said in the statement.

It was unclear Friday afternoon whether the FAA had plans to approve the sheriff's request this week or if the public plea influenced the decision.

Cory wrote in an email the Sheriff's Department submitted two "complex waiver applications" and the FAA has been reviewing the applications since they were submitted. Only one was approved since the other did not have all of the required information, she wrote.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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