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North Dakota Plans Statewide Drone Air Traffic Control

An unmanned aircraft network would allow drones to be operated beyond visual line of sight using both radar and radio transmissions. State leaders believe it could prove to be an economic boon for the state.

Very soon, an unmanned aircraft will be able to launch from the Montana border of North Dakota and fly to the state line of Minnesota uninterrupted and hundreds of miles away from its pilot.

The North Dakota Legislature passed a bill this year infusing $33 million into Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), $28 million of which is earmarked for a statewide network so that soon an aircraft can fly long distances without losing radio connection to its remote operator.

Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, said the system will use a combination of radar and radio transmissions to track aircraft and facilitate the piloting of UAS. As much as possible will be built on existing state infrastructure, such as the towers used for the North Dakota emergency services radio network, Flom said. The higher aircraft can fly, as dictated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the less equipment is required to communicate with it.

“When a manned airplane is out flying, they can look out the cockpit window to look for other airplanes and if they see one, they can avoid it,” he said, “When a UAS is up there we have to have the same type of capabilities to fly in these airspaces with manned airplanes. We have to have the ability to detect an airplane [or other UAS] out there so that we can avoid it.”

Flom said the design for how the system will function and be deployed is almost complete. Once finished, a request for proposals will be drafted for a long-term vendor to install the hardware and software.

North Dakota is collaborating with the FAA to ease limitations to allow for a statewide network, said Dr. James Leiman, director of economic development and finance in the Department of Commerce. Leiman said rollout of the network will be at the federal administration’s pace.

“The risk tolerance for the FAA will likely be dictated use case by use case. In North Dakota, we’re pretty far advanced with respect to agriculture use cases and energy use cases, within energy that’s flying over pipelines and flying over utility lines,” he said. “Due to their comfort level, I suspect those will come online relatively quickly as the network is developed because we’ll have approved use cases, but then beyond that is where it’s going to become tricky.”

Leiman said it’s important for the state to cultivate the UAS industry so they decide to establish a foothold in North Dakota to test and evaluate new unmanned aircraft, which will then hopefully expand the FAA’s use case allowance.

Gov. Doug Burgum addressed members of the UAS industry at the Drone Focus Conference 2019. Burgum toted the beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) research at the Northern Plains Test Site, which both the governor and Leiman consider the catalyst for a multitude of new uses for UAS and the base operating structure of the statewide network.

“BVLOS is where this industry’s going, and that’s what’s going to change,” he said in his speech. “The platform that’s going to be created by UAS, think of platform like a smartphone platform, the applications that are going to come on top of this, we can’t even imagine all of the applications that are going to be created.”

Burgum credited his predecessor Sen. John Hoeven, former governor of North Dakota, with advocating for UAS more than a decade ago. Since then, the state has invested more than $77 million and established a test site, and a business and aviation park.

Leiman said the network will be online by the end of the summer 2021 in the Red River Valley, which forms most of the border with Minnesota, and the Bakken oil fields for uses already approved by the FAA.

“A majority of the state’s use cases, if you will, or the value add to the state’s economy will be in place and then the rest of the state will be filled in thereafter as new authorities come online from FAA,” he said.

The primary mission of the FAA is to integrate UAS in a safe, efficient and timely way, according to the agency’s UAS fact sheet. The administration acknowledges that it must be flexible in its rules and policies to allow for progress in UAS technology.

“The FAA is taking an incremental approach to safe UAS integration as the agency acquires a better understanding of operational issues such as training requirements, operational specifications, and technology considerations,” the fact sheet states.

The endgame of UAS, as described by Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, is to allow for economic growth and diversity across North Dakota, especially in small, rural communities. Sanford said implementation of the network will keep his state on the cutting edge of drone deployment.

“This network isn’t a goal line, it’s the start of a challenge,” he said in a recent podcast. “It’s a challenge for UAS companies to come to North Dakota and grow.”

Patrick Groves was a staff writer for Government Technology from 2019 to 2020.