By Jakee Stoltz NPUAS Test Site
In May 2019, North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and the North Dakota Department of Commerce announced a $30 million dollar investment to be used to build out infrastructure to support Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) across North Dakota. The goal of a statewide BVLOS network is to enable UAS efficiencies for state agencies, local communities, and commercial sectors, including automated farming, utility inspections, and disaster response. The future of our statewide BVLOS network can be likened to common aviation infrastructures, such as navigational aids and runways which support manned aviation activities in North Dakota and across the country. Instead of each company deploying their own technology to support advanced UAS operations, North Dakota will deploy a common infrastructure that can be used by all UAS operators. Northern Plains UAS Test Site, headquartered in Grand Forks for the past seven years, has been chosen to manage the implementation of this network.
Immediately, Northern Plains UAS Test Site began working diligently with State and other partners, such as the North Dakota Department of Transportation and the MITRE Corporation, to plan the initial deployment of the system. The statewide BVLOS network will consist of technology to detect other aircraft and assist UAS pilots in avoiding them, technology to reliably command and control the unmanned aircraft at extended distances, and technology to monitor the entire system so as to ensure it is running at the intended performance levels. All these technologies must be robust, secure, and able to gain the necessary approvals from agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission.
The initial deployment of the system, called the Key Site, is beginning to take shape with the signing of several agreements with leading UAS companies. L3Harris Technologies and Thales USA have been selected to provide technology, such as radars and radios, and build out the initial Key Site infrastructure. Volansi has been selected to provide an advanced UAS for network testing and use-case development. The Key Site location has also been chosen as the area surrounding Watford City and Williston, due to proximity to many potential use cases and existing state and local government infrastructure that can be leveraged for deployment.
The goal is to have an operational Key Site by the summer of 2021. At that time, UAS operators will be able to leverage the statewide BVLOS network to conduct advanced UAS operations that cannot be done today and that support their business needs. For example, the statewide BVLOS network might support an oil and gas company flying UAS with advanced sensors to inspect long distances of pipeline for integrity. Or the network might support law enforcement flying a UAS to quickly cover large areas to search for a missing person. Perhaps the network may even support the UAS being flown to deliver your packages. In all cases, the statewide BVLOS network will provide technology and support to enable these advanced operations safely in the North Dakota skies.
The FAA recently selected 26 schools across the United States to participate in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Collegiate Training Initiative (UAS-CTI). This program recognizes institutions that prepare students for UAS careers and was launched in April 2020. Two North Dakota schools were selected: Dakota College in Bottineau and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.