Air Force to begin testing drone-fired lasers over North Dakota

On July 26, the U.S. Air National Guard will get the green light to begin firing lasers from unmanned attack drones in a vast swath of skies over North Dakota, despite the concerns of local commercial pilots.

At the Devils Lake home of the North Dakota Army National Guard, pilots train on MQ-1 Predator drones -- the most prevalent unmanned attack vehicle in the military arsenal. In late June the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published an updated set of rules and regulations covering Devils Lake, creating several large restricted airspaces over the Camp Gilbert C. Grafton military base.

The reason: the Air Force plans to begin tests of potentially dangerous lasers shot remotely from the drone.

“Sorties will be limited to the minimum necessary for training, be confined to restricted airspace, and be executed against ground targets for laser designation, completely within an existing Army small arms weapons training range,” Billie Jo Lorius, a public information officer with the North Dakota National Guard, told

The lasers aren’t intended as weapons, as were those built on the jumbo jet operated by the Air Force in the Airborne Laser Test Bed program, which was officially mothballed in February. Rather they are targeting lasers fixed on a spot on the ground, which can be used to steer other explosives to a target.

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The Air Force is not testing them yet but expects to begin soon, Lorius said.


“Air Force RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] laser use in North Dakota, expected to begin in mid-FY13, will be conducted only for Continuation Training (CT) sorties,” she said. Fiscal year 2013 begins in October.

Yet because such lasers pose a risk to the eyes, especially for other pilots operating in the area, the limitations were necessary and the North Dakota location was required -- despite the complaints of area pilots.

“Since the MQ–1 Predator [UAS] laser is non-eye safe and will be used during training sorties flown by the military, its use constitutes a hazardous activity that must be confined within restricted area airspace to protect nonparticipating aircraft,” the new regulations read.

“The restricted areas proposed by this action were situated and proposed in the only location that met the USAF’s operational requirements of proximity to launch/recovery base, low air traffic density, and availability of an existing air-to-ground gunnery range suitable for the hazardous non-eye safe laser training activities.”

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association remains concerned about the tests, fearing that pilots won’t be alerted ahead of time when drones with dangerous lasers are operating in their immediate flight path.

“We’ve seen an alarming trend the past few years where airspace changes don’t align with charting dates,” said AOPA Vice President of Air Traffic Modernization Heidi Williams. “Pilots could be flying into restricted airspace and know nothing about it. Safety-of-flight information must be available in the cockpit—that’s where it’s needed.”

The FAA agreed that an increased traffic “compression” could occur. But due to the actual volume of flights in the area, the agency said that impact will be minimal.