By Nicole Ingalls-Caley, Northern Plains UAS Test Site
As the build out of Vantis’ key site locations nears completion and the first stages of testing are on the horizon, it is important to make sure North Dakota’s statewide Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) network is understood and supported by the communities it hopes to serve. In February of this year, we hosted several events in Williston and Watford City to answer questions from local manned aviation pilots, as well as community members.
Vantis is designed to open the sky to North Dakotans with safe integration of manned and unmanned aircraft. We want to make sure that our friends and neighbors understand its value to them, and we want to give them the opportunity for input.
Vantis Lunch-and-Learn at Roughrider Center
Community Lunch and Learns
The goal with these community outreach events was to provide a basic overview of what Vantis actually is, in technical terms, but also to discuss the less technical hopes and aspirations we have for Vantis.
In simple terms, Vantis is a network of technologies that allow a UAS pilot to “see” the remotely piloted vehicle even when it’s left their physical line of sight. More than that, it will allow pilots to see from the vantage point of the UAS, or drone. Currently, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights are not allowed without a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which can be both time and resource intensive to obtain.
But when we think about the ways in which UAS can improve our lives – improved prescription delivery to elderly, rural residents; faster, more efficient emergency response and search and rescue efforts; faster turnaround on medical tests from larger labs, leading to more immediate treatment; the return of electric or internet services following a blizzard or thunderstorm; infrastructure inspections that are safer for the inspectors and keep life and commerce running smoothly – most of this requires BVLOS flights.
By obtaining a waiver for BVLOS flights on Vantis, we provide a single network for multiple users to access many of these life-changing use cases with a lower barrier of entry. In terms of UAS capabilities, Vantis is the holy grail.
We wanted to make sure community leaders in Williston and Watford City understood that while Vantis is being heralded as a major technological advancement and a driver of economic development, its value comes from what it enables for North Dakotans.
In Williston, our Lunch and Learn was graciously hosted by Williston Economic Development at TrainND Northwest, a division of Williston State College. In Watford City, we were hosted at the Roughrider Center by McKenzie County Economic Development. Both events garnered interest from community leaders, as well as members of the community looking to learn more about Vantis. We were impressed by the range of questions we received and how excited everyone seemed about Vantis’ potential.
Vantis Pilot Meeting at Overland Aviation Hangar
Manned Aviation Community Discussions
The community discussions were designed to be open conversations between manned and unmanned aviation professionals. We are aware that UAS innovation and integration into the National Airspace System (NAS) can create a lot of questions for manned aviation pilots. We were looking to explain how UAS would function in this region once Vantis is complete, as well as to get feedback from manned pilots on how we can ease this transition.
We shared a bit about how Vantis works on a technical level, and then dove into how UAS flights on Vantis would affect manned flights in the region. We received questions about how manned pilots could make themselves aware of unmanned flights in the area on a given day and about a dedicated frequency that could be used to communicate with UAS pilots flying in the area. As is common in the aviation industry, safety was the top concern on everyone’s list.
One of the biggest things we wanted to communicate was that Vantis aims to be as non-disruptive to manned aviation as possible. UAS flying on Vantis will give way to manned aircraft. We are responsible for being aware of manned aircraft in the airspace in order to detect and avoid. So even if a manned pilot is unaware of flights on Vantis, we are aware of them, and we are ensuring that manned and unmanned aircraft can share airspace safely.
It is important to note that receiving a waiver from the FAA allowing BVLOS flights on Vantis will be predicated upon making an impeccable safety case. We have a number of internal criteria that must be met before any flights on Vantis can take place, and they must be met through a rigorous testing process before we move forward.
We are building what amounts to public infrastructure; we would never sacrifice public trust in that infrastructure in order to move a bit faster. Like our manned aviation counterparts before us, we are committed to pairing innovation with unwavering safety protocols.
In Williston, this meeting was held at Overland Aviation, while in Watford City we were once again at the Roughrider Center.
Vantis Radar Install at Williston Basin Airport
More than Just a Network
Since the Northern Plains UAS Test Site was entrusted to administer the creation of Vantis with a significant state investment in this technical infrastructure, we have spent a lot of time talking about what Vantis is. How does Vantis work? Is it like a highway or like a cell phone network or a little like both? Why is it necessary? Why can’t drones fly beyond visual line of sight anyway? Who will use Vantis? What will be the benefit to the state in terms of economic development? Why invest in UAS at all?
Those are important questions, of course. But we also think it’s important to talk about the very real impact expanded UAS capabilities will have on the lives of people who have never given aviation, much less drones, more than a second thought.