BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The Burleigh County Sheriff's Department and the North Dakota Highway Patrol have received federal approval to operate drones over populated areas.
The patrol said the capability to fly the drones should result in safer ways to document crash scenes and be a powerful tool to help with search and rescue operations. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is the only other agency in the state to receive such approval.
The four-year authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration was granted Aug. 5 to the sheriff's department, the Bismarck Tribune reported. The Highway Patrol received permission two days later.
The sheriff's department can now operate unmanned aircraft systems over urban areas in which people live or gather. Since the agency launched its drone program about a year ago, officers have been able to use drones only in rural areas, according to Deputy Tom Schroeder.
"If we have to operate within the city of Bismarck, that's where this waiver is really going to come into play for us," Schroeder said. "We can fly over people to conduct business. We can fly over a park, we can fly over a golf course, things like that."
Officials said North Dakota is the first state to have its highway patrol receive drone approval.
"This waiver will allow North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers the option to safely photograph, measure, and document complicated crash scenes," Highway Patrol Superintendent Col. Brandon Solberg said in a statement. "Traditional methods of working on crash scenes and gathering evidence require troopers to block off roadways and stand in lanes of travel, which can cause delays for motorists and unnecessary risk to emergency personnel."
The transportation department was selected last year as one of 10 participants for a drone integration program that has become somewhat of a race to see who can find the next best thing to help quickly and safely incorporate drones into the national airspace.
The NDDOT in June became the first state government agency granted a waiver to fly unmanned aircraft over people, which bolsters the state's background as one that includes the nation's first drone business park and a company that supplies drone pilots around the world.
Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com