GRAND FORKS-Legislation in Congress will heighten North Dakota's role in protecting the U.S. by giving the Department of Homeland Security more authority to research and develop strategies against the misuse of unmanned aircraft, the head of the national agency said Thursday, Aug. 9, in North Dakota.

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., discussed the Preventing Emerging Threats Act of 2018 during her visit to Grand Sky, a Unmanned Aircraft System, or UAS, business park west of Grand Forks.

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"Technology has many, many benefits, but it can also be used for nefarious purposes," Nielsen told media and UAS leaders during her visit to Grand Sky. "What we see them doing are two things. One, they're using it to fly drugs over here. But secondly, they use it to surveil where my men and women are."

The bipartisan bill with its own versions in the House and Senate will give the DHS security to counter drone misuse like those Nielsen mentioned-both Hoeven and U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., say they helped introduce the legislation in the Senate.

Nielsen said the bill will also help DHS with "mission gaps."

"It's very difficult for us right now to have comfort that we have fully surveilled and understand where the risks are," Nielsen said. "This (drones) will enable us to do that."

If DHS could in essence surveil both borders "on a 24-hour-seven-day-a-week basis," Hoeven said, "think how much more effective that would make them in interdicting drugs, smuggling, people coming across illegally."

"And so that's what this is about --- developing and using these technologies to really leverage the manpower they have," Hoeven said.

Heitkamp and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., were unable to attend Nielsen's visit.

"Her visit comes on the heels of North Dakota being selected for the Drone Integration Pilot Program in May," Cramer said in a statement released after the roundtable, referring to a program meant to use drones more in national airspace. "The UAS industry has great potential, and I'm glad Secretary Nielsen was able to see firsthand the progress we are making in North Dakota to develop these efforts."

In June, after the Senate version of the aforementioned bill passed the U.S. Senate Committee, Heitkamp said this was just another way the federal government can take advantage of the state's strong commercial UAS sector.

"North Dakota is well-positioned to play a central role in building new technologies that effectively detect and interdict UAS that could be used to traffic narcotics, commit acts of terrorism, or target border security operations," she added.

General Atomics expanding in Grand Forks

After Nielsen left, Hoeven stayed behind with General Atomics Aeronautical Systems co-owner Linden Blue to announce the drone company will expand its space at Grand Sky from six to 20 acres.

"They pretty much agreed to it today," Hoeven said. "So we couldn't be more excited."

General Atomics is one of the two UAS tenants on Grand Sky, Northrop Grumman being the second. Earlier this summer, Hoeven congratulated General Atomic and Grand Sky on the first transatlantic flight of a commercial UAS, which took off from Grand Sky to Gloucestershire, U.K.

"How fitting is that since they're going to be training military English pilots right here," Hoeven said Thursday.

Blue said General Atomics also will train other foreign pilots who don't have access to the same capacity or space North Dakota has.

"When we decide to expand beyond our California area, and we look for a place in which we're going to make a significant investment, then that's a big, big decision," Blue said. "And there's a risk associated with that. And the way you deal with that kind of risk is really you look for a place where there's a culture of trust. And you can trust the local communities."