- Associated Press - Monday, April 21, 2014

North Dakota could begin flying a drone next month to test how the unmanned aircraft can check soil quality and the status of crops to help farmers improve agricultural management.

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Michael Huerta said during a trip to the state Monday that the agency has granted the state a two-year certificate to begin flying a small drone, making North Dakota the first of six test sites in the nation to be allowed to start missions.

The initial flights of the Draganflyer X4ES be over North Dakota State University’s Carrington Research Extension Center located in Carrington. A second set of missions are scheduled for the summer over Sullys Hill National Game Preserve near Devils Lake.

The scheduled flights will not be over private property.

The university’s extension service is studying how precision agriculture - a farming management concept that involves fine-tuning the application of seed, fertilizer and pesticide on every square foot of a field to improve yields and reduce costs - could be helped by using drones.

Unmanned aircraft are already used for seeding and spraying in Japan. Drones may be used in the future to detect disease in crops, depending on the development of sensors. Images taken from above with infrared photography and other technology could eventually show farmers the heat or water content of their plants.

North Dakota’s test site is part of a new aerospace and business complex at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“North Dakota has really taken the lead in supporting the growing unmanned aircraft industry,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

The agriculture-focused flight missions are also expected to collect safety and maintenance data needed for the overall integration of drones into commercial airspace over the next several years.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple last year created a six-member committee to oversee the site’s operations, including the development of public safety protocols and privacy restrictions. The state has invested more than $14 million in the test site in hopes of becoming a leading hub for drone technology. The legislature in 2013 approved $5 million for the site, with $4 million contingent on the selection.

The FAA does not currently allow commercial use of drones, but it is working to develop operational guidelines by the end of 2015, although officials concede the project may take longer than expected.

The agency projects as many as 7,500 small commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to U.S. skies.