BThe problem with flying Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) is that it’s incredibly prohibitive and not repeatable, scalable, or economically viable - yet. The requirements to make it possible – extensive research and technology development, building out infrastructure, testing and validation, securing regulatory approvals, creating an advanced safety case – take years to meet and are simply unrealistic for most single-use cases. Imagine if everyone had to build their own road to travel further than their own yard, and had to individually negotiate approvals for what they’d be able to do and how they’d be able to do it, once they did. Imagine there being separate roads, regulatory approvals, safety measures, and building procedures, for the USPS, FedEx, and UPS. One for fire engines, one for ambulances, and one for police. One for every different trucking company. It’s expensive, it’s inefficient, and it just doesn’t make sense.
It’s a first-of-its-kind, turnkey product that will enable BVLOS flights across the state without the overwhelming upfront investment of “building your own road.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is nothing in this country like Vantis; it is truly a revolutionary first step towards opening up the skies for UAS operations. Administered by North Dakota’s homegrown center of UAS expertise, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), Vantis infrastructure is already being installed at key sites in McKenzie and Williams Counties with a Mission and Network Operations Center (MNOC) in Grand Forks County.
Improving Quality of Life
Enabling commonplace BVLOS flights for public and commercial use cases isn’t just an exciting advancement in the UAS industry, it’s a boon for North Dakotans, who will be able to reap the benefits for decades to come. As Northern Plains UAS Test Site executive director Nicholas Flom is fond of saying, North Dakota doesn’t have a last mile problem, it has a last hundred-mile problem. North Dakota isn’t just rural; 36 of our 53 counties are designated as frontier counties, meaning they have a population density of fewer than six people per square mile. Traditionally, this has posed challenges related to meeting the needs of our citizens. Mail and package deliveries take longer. Access to healthcare is more limited than in cities, and wait times on medical test results are longer. They are often last to receive technological developments. This was true when electrical infrastructure was being built out, and continues to be true with deployment of high-speed internet infrastructure. There are miles and miles of roads between rural North Dakotans and population centers that need consistent maintenance and inspection. Following a storm or a natural disaster, those long roads need to be safe before emergency responders can arrive or before technicians can be deployed to fix critical infrastructure, like downed power lines after a blizzard.
People often frame this as a disadvantage, but Flom believes it’s an opportunity. “Unique problems just mean that we need a unique solution – and luckily, North Dakota is an entrepreneurial state.”
When people think of commercial UAS operations, package delivery is often what they think of. It’s true that Vantis will open the door to fast, efficient deliveries for retail items, as well as things like medications for people who receive theirs by mail. But there is a much larger scope of what is possible. Rural residents, who may have to wait days to get test results back from the lab in the nearest big city, could see a much quicker turn-around. Quicker results mean quicker treatment, which often means better outcomes.
This is also true for emergency response. Following a natural disaster, returning electricity to a rural hospital is imperative. Locating lost hikers or people who may have been stranded in a storm, providing first aid supplies to the scene of an accident before ambulances arrive, or getting communication equipment to someone injured and stranded in a rural location, who just needs to remain calm and know that help is on the way. Doing these things quickly can be a matter of life and death.
Not only does Vantis have the potential to make North Dakotans safer, it is poised to improve their lives. Quick, safe, and efficient rail inspections not only reduce the risk of dangerous crashes and derailments, they also reduce the risk of costly delays and expensive maintenance that contribute to higher prices. Extensive road and bridge inspections not only make North Dakotans safer, they mean that we get better gas mileage and hit fewer bumps in the road on the way to visit relatives over the holidays. It means we are all back on the road sooner after a flood, a blizzard, or a tornado. Monitoring wells and pipelines to respond to spills quickly, or catch them before they happen, means a thriving energy industry in the state and clean, unspoiled natural spaces for outdoor recreation and tourism. Agriculture is the heart of North Dakota’s economy; UAS surveys can help improve crop yields, track herds, and produce more food for the country and for export. Vantis will help North Dakota farmers work smarter, not harder.
These opportunities for commercialization using UAS do not exist elsewhere in the United States, because Vantis is literally the first of its kind. The development of this network will draw in business from around the country. However, it will also inspire exciting innovation right here in the state. It makes sense, as our state already has all the components needed to support UAS education, training, research, and commercialization.
Why North Dakota?
North Dakota has been one of a handful of leaders in UAS innovation across the country. The University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University are home to experts with decades of experience in aviation and UAS technology. The Grand Forks Air Force Base (GFAFB) specializes in UAS flights. In 2013, NPUASTS was selected to be one of only seven Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designated UAS test sites. Since then, UAS businesses have been flourishing here and the nation’s first UAS business and aviation park, Grand Sky, opened at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The NPUASTS, in partnership with North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT), was a lead participant in the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program (IPP), whose goal was to explore how to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace system (NAS); NPUASTS, along with the NDDOT, was further selected to participate in the second iteration of the IPP, known as BEYOND. North Dakota is on the cutting edge of UAS flight beyond visual line of sight in this country.
It’s no exaggeration to say that North Dakota is uniquely positioned as a leader in UAS advancements. We’re also supported by state leaders and partners, who believe in Vantis.
One of the missions of Vantis is to leverage existing infrastructure and capabilities deployed throughout the state. The NDDOT owns and operates towers throughout the state, which Vantis will be able to use to install remote infrastructure. The North Dakota Information Technology Department (NDIT) manages a network called STAGEnet, which Vantis will use to support the backhaul network. The North Dakota Aeronautics Commission (NDAC) works with each of the 89 public-use airports in the state, a tremendous asset when Vantis needs access to or contacts at these airports. The North Dakota Department of Commerce is the funding agency that provides strategic guidance for Vantis.
Senator John Hoeven has been a long-time advocate for the development of a thriving UAS ecosystem in North Dakota. Governor Doug Burgum is second to none when it comes to supporting leading-edge initiatives. Lieutenant Governor Brent Sanford chairs the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, which is directly responsible for the execution of Vantis. North Dakota’s legislature has been incredibly supportive of UAS initiatives in the state and of Vantis in particular, approving the initial investment to begin building out the infrastructure and make North Dakota the nation’s UAS epicenter.
It’s not only North Dakotans who see the incredible value of a network like Vantis. In 2019, NPUASTS hosted an industry day to outline the vision for Vantis and to announce the upcoming competitive Request for Proposals (RFP) for the selection of three system engineers/system integrators. Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies Company, L3Harris Technologies, and Thales USA bring decades of safety experience in manned aviation, as well as cutting-edge UAS technology to the table. Each of these giants in aviation technology has been involved in the development of the network. L3Harris Technologies and Thales USA were selected to build out the initial key sites. Volansi’s VOLY C10 was selected as the aircraft to test and validate Vantis. It will ensure the safety and reliability of the network and perform use-case development flights.
The Future of UAS
Integral to Vantis’ success will be the Mission Network and Operations Center (MNOC), which is currently under construction at Grand Sky Business and Aviation Park in Grand Forks county, attached to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Grand Sky is the only park of its kind in the country, assisted in its innovative capabilities by that relationship and proximity to the Air Force base. The MNOC will function as a command center, connecting all of the remote sites across the state, including towers and airports that house Vantis technology infrastructure, to the backhaul data network. Top of the line, aviation-grade technology will ensure that Vantis is safe and reliable by monitoring the health of the network and identifying problems before they can impact flights.
Because nothing like Vantis exists in this country, nothing like the MNOC exists either. This is infrastructure that is designed to grow with Vantis as it develops and grows, as the UAS industry is evolving rapidly, both in terms of technology but also in terms of regulations. For example, the FAA recently announced final rules for Remote Identification (Remote ID) of drones. These rules would allow for small UAS to fly over people and at night under certain conditions or circumstances that one would normally require a waiver. This change will facilitate greater integration of UAS into the National Airspace System. The NPUASTS is assessing the implementation of these rules and their incorporation into Vantis for the benefit of both unmanned and manned aviation. Once incorporated, the conditions in which Vantis can operate are significantly expanded.
y Nicole P. Ingalls-Caley, Marketing Manager at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site