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Vantis’ Next Steps: Building Out a Statewide UAS Network

March 16, 2022 12:58 | Anonymous

Vantis is North Dakota’s statewide unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or drone, network. So far the state of North Dakota has invested $48 million to create and build out Vantis, aiming to enable safe, reliable, and economically-viable UAS flights across the entire state. Making UAS flights like this commonplace requires the ability to fly BVLOS, or beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot. This is why we need Vantis. 

Why Vantis is a Game-Changer  

Currently, UAS pilots are required to keep UAS they are flying within their visual line of sight unless they have a special waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowing them to use “daisy-chain” visual observers or some other mitigation to ensure safe control of the aircraft. 

This barrier is what prevents wide-spread package or medication deliveries, road and infrastructure inspections, large-scale precision agriculture, and large-scale search and rescue efforts using UAS. It’s incredibly difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to execute a UAS operation within the space of a half-mile only to pack up, move a half-mile down the road, and continue. It also restricts UAS to following ground infrastructure, rather than as-the-crow-flies. 

But getting an individual waiver for BVLOS flights is also incredibly difficult – it requires a significant investment of time and resources – and it doesn’t make sense. Every UAS operator getting their own BVLOS waiver is like every truck company building its own roads. Vantis is a state-funded, common infrastructure that will be accessible to all UAS pilots with UAS that meet the minimum requirements – just like with vehicles on toll roads. 

Enabling BVLOS flights for multiple users on a single network across the entire state of North Dakota means all of the use cases mentioned above – package delivery, infrastructure inspections, search and rescue efforts, etc. – will become commonplace. Vantis will be a blueprint for other states to follow, dramatically changing what is possible with UAS. After all, the people who built the first roads for Model Ts could never have predicted something like a Tesla. 

Where We’ve Been

Since the initial investment in May 2019, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), which administers Vantis, has worked with aviation giants Collins Aerospace, L3Harris Technologies, and Thales USA as system engineers and integrators to develop the technology necessary to make Vantis possible. Vantis uses ground-based infrastructure in the form of radars, radios, and communications equipment attached to towers – the coverage area of these technologies overlap, creating a coverage area much like a cellphone network. This technology was installed at key sites in Williams and McKenzie Counties on the western side of the state in the Bakken formation, where energy-related use-cases are abundant. 

In addition to ground-based infrastructure, Vantis uses the state’s fiber optic network to connect to the Mission and Network Operations Center (MNOC). The MNOC is housed at Grand Sky, the nation’s first commercial UAS business and aviation park, which is located at Grand Forks Air Force Base. 

We have completed our first increment of developmental and operational testing, which ensures that all of the different technologies involved in Vantis are working as expected with a variety of both manned and unmanned aircraft. Most of this testing has been conducted in partnership with uAvionix and Overland Aviation, though at the time of this writing we also have released an RFP soliciting additional UAS to assist in our rigorous testing processes. 

In October 2021, we down-selected to Thales as our primary system integrator and partner in this endeavor as we move forward towards approvals, first official flights, and new locations. 

Where We’re Going

The Red River Valley will host the next Vantis sites. Our strategy in selecting locations has been to go where UAS use-cases already exist, so that once testing and approvals are finalized, flights can begin immediately. The Red River Valley is a region with extensive agricultural use-cases and is also home to two of the largest cities in the state. Thanks to the University of North Dakota (UND) and North Dakota State University (NDSU), there are also a number of UAS operators, researchers, and businesses in this area. 

The Vantis team, including representatives from NPUASTS and Thales, have already begun reaching out to local leaders and scouting locations for the ground-based infrastructure. In Williams and McKenzie counties, we were able to use North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) towers for most of the technology installations. This will be the goal in the Red River Valley as well – using existing infrastructure saves taxpayer money and allows us to move more quickly in implementation. We expect installations to begin by early spring. 

Our goal has always been to enable BVLOS flights without negatively affecting manned aviation, and we continue to pursue that goal as we build out Vantis. UAS on Vantis will always give way to manned aircraft, and we take responsibility for seeing and avoiding manned aircraft as well as other obstacles. Outreach in the Red River Valley will include meetings with manned pilots, just like we did in Williams and McKenzie counties, to answer questions, address concerns, and listen to feedback to ensure that the integration of UAS into National Airspace System is as seamless as possible. 

Out West, we will be finalizing operational testing and working with the FAA in order to get approvals for BVLOS flights on Vantis. By proving that Vantis is a safe and reliable system, we’re also helping the FAA establish criteria for similar technologies in the future. Once we are approved, pilots will have an expedited path to fly BVLOS, leveraging Vantis’ approval and extensive safety testing process. We expect first official flights – true BVLOS flights – in the coming months. 

Vantis will be available for research and testing, use by public and state agencies, and for commercial operations, providing North Dakotans with the unprecedented benefits of widespread UAS use. Package delivery at your doorstep is only the beginning. With Vantis, the sky is the limit. 

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North Dakota Aviation Association

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Bismarck, ND 58502

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