GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — An unmanned aircraft the size of a push lawnmower was launched shortly after a report of a person being held at knifepoint. With red, green and white lights flashing below its rotors, the drone slowly circled the scene and relayed sharp images to those watching from afar on a digital screen.
The mock police scene that played out Tuesday kicked off an annual unmanned aircraft conference in Grand Forks, home to the first drone test site in the country to open for business. Another demonstration featured the Draganflyer X4ES recording evidence, such as skid marks and debris, from a two-car accident.
"The possibilities are endless," said pilot Jake Stoltz, who helped navigate the drone and its sensors Tuesday. The exhibition was meant to show the shape of things to come when drones reach the commercial market, he said.
Based at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the test site is one of six in the country where experts are working on the safety of flying drones in civilian airspace and the public perception of having them above. The Federal Aviation Administration does not currently allow the commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines.
Stoltz touted the plane's ability to go from a crime scene to a crop scene.
"We're already testing uses in agriculture," Stoltz said. "I'm not an expert, but I find it amazing that one day you will have farmers using them to check on the health of their crops."
At least 75 percent of the drone use in civilian airspace is expected to involve agriculture. When the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site became operational last spring, it began testing how drones can check soil quality and the status of crops. Unmanned aircraft could help farmers by using images taken from above with infrared photography and other technology to show the heat or water content of their plants.
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said Tuesday that drones could help keep the family farm alive.
"The average farmer today is 58 1/2 years old," he said. "One of the ways to keep the young people on the farms is using robotics, because this is cool technology and farmers feel it's a way to keep their sons and daughters on the farm."
Stoltz, who grew up in western North Dakota, agrees.
"I think it's another exciting piece of technology that younger farmers will probably embrace, versus the farmer who has been doing it his way for 30 years already," he said.
Watching the drones in action could also ease the worries of some who perceive the aircraft as an invasion of privacy, said Tim Schuh, the Grand Forks police corporal who led the demonstration.
"People come and see this little 5-pound helicopter and wonder why we were making such a big deal about it," Schuh said. "I think when people see a lot of the capabilities of the aircraft, it will put their minds at ease."
A survey unveiled at the conference Tuesday by UND professors Cindy Juntunen and Thomasine Heitkamp showed a high rate of acceptance for the drones. The survey of 728 participants in 16 northeastern North Dakota counties found that people's top concern about unmanned aerial systems is safety, not personal privacy.
"That was a surprise," Juntunen said. "It also may speak to the fact that we don't know how educated people are about what (drones) do."