Drone Flight Test From State’s West to East Border Powered By Infrastructure


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The North Dakota Legislature passed a bill this year budgeting $33 million for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). The majority of the money is earmarked so aircraft can fly long distances without losing radio connections to their remote operators, according to Government Technology. North Dakota has been planning this for the last decade, investing upwards of $77 million to date, establishing a UAS test site plus a business aviation park.

According to Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, the UAS program will enable economic growth and diversity across the state, especially in small, rural communities. Sanford said implementation of the network would keep his state on the cutting edge of drone deployment.

Soon, a test flight will occur where an unmanned aircraft will launch from the Montana border and fly across North Dakota to the state line of Minnesota, hundreds of miles away from its pilot, according to Government Technology.

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

Per Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the system will operate with a combination of radar and radio transmissions to track aircraft and facilitate the piloting of UAS. Where available, the UAS will run on existing state infrastructure—towers used for the North Dakota emergency services radio network. Flom noted that the higher an aircraft can fly, as dictated by the FAA, the less equipment is required to communicate with it.

Flom also noted that the system design is nearly complete and a request for proposals is the next step to identify a vendor to install hardware and software, which should be online by summer 2021, across most of the Minnesota border.

Additionally, the state 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. 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.

Leiman noted that the rollout is contingent on FAA approval. “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.”

June 13, 2019

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