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North Dakota Testbed Unveils Drone ‘Interstate’ System

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site introduced plans for a new network that officials are calling an interstate road system for UAS. The infrastructure will allow drones to operate beyond the visual line of sight.

a digital rendering of a delivery drone
(TNS) — Likening it to a highway in the sky, Nick Flom, director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, unveiled Vantis, a platform set to become the nation's first statewide network for drones, on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

It's a network of infrastructure that will bring about the age of operating unmanned aerial vehicles beyond the visual line of sight, long considered to be the crucial next step in UAS development and commercialization. The network will first be rolled out in Williams and McKenzie counties, in the western part of the state, and routine flight operations are set to happen in the spring. Flom made the announcement while attending the virtual UAS Summit held on Wednesday and Thursday.

"Vantis marks a new phase in technology and development," Flom said. "No other state has devoted the resources North Dakota has to create this infrastructure — basically an interstate road system for UAS — to open up unlimited applications. Every aspect of it is truly first of its kind. People will want to take advantage of the unprecedented opportunities it allows."

The network comes about from a $33 million funding package passed by the Legislature in 2018. Of that, $28 million is for remote infrastructure — sensors and command and control radios — and the data network to link the system together. Another $3 million is for a mission and network operation center at the Grand Sky UAS business park west of Grand Forks. From there, the entire network, those two western counties at first, can be monitored to make sure each component is functioning. The remainder of the funding is for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, for further network development and support.

When Vantis is operational, multiple users will be able to log on and send their drones on remote missions. It will be available for commercial use, such as retail deliveries, but the state will be able to make use of it as well, for road inspections, search and rescue and law enforcement operations. Near-term commercial uses include inspecting utility and oil and gas lines, which is one reason why the network will be rolled out in the western heart of the state, in the oil patch.

Without Vantis, companies wanting to fly BVLOS would need to install a network of towers, radars and sensors, making it unaffordable. It's a situation Flom likens to first having to build a road to reach an existing destination.

"There is no such thing as infrastructure in place for UAS," Flom told the Herald. "The main value of all this is one network, one set of infrastructure. The state of North Dakota is making this large investment, and then others will be able to use it, just like what we do on a road, just like what we do on manned aviation, we all end up at the same airports."

Aviation infrastructure companies L3Harris Technologies and Thales USA have been selected to build out key site infrastructure in Williams and McKenzie counties, and Collins Aerospace, a Raytheon Technologies Company, will provide systems engineering and integrations services, as well. But that doesn't mean new control towers will pop up in those counties, and then across the state. Flom said he wants to mount the equipment on towers owned by the North Dakota Department of Transportation and other vertical structures.

"I don't want to build anything new, there's enough towers already around the state," he said.

After a period of testing and monitoring for safety and scalability, Vantis will expand, but it won't radiate out from its western starting point. Pockets of the network will appear throughout the state before, ultimately, covering it.

"We're going to go where the users are," he said.

©2020 the Grand Forks Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.