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What strengthens North Dakota’s prospects in unmanned drone testing

North Dakota has tremendous prospects in unmanned drone testing (Photo: Flickr/Don McCullough)

The sweeping possibilities of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) were evident from the time they were envisioned. However, their relevance in commercial use cases had largely been non-existent until recently, as the technologies powering such systems were hazy at best.

However, with the rise of machine learning and vision intelligence, UAS or “drones” as they are popularly known, have returned to mainstream attention with hundreds of millions of dollars being pumped into the UAS industry to develop drones and the affiliated ground infrastructure.

Building up a new ecosystem from scratch requires the government to establish regulations, especially since UAS will have to coordinate movements with existing conventional aircraft. Several state governments across the U.S. are taking the initiative in this regard, but none have been as proactive as North Dakota, which has steadily laid claim to being one of the primary launching spots for drone technology.

In May, the North Dakota legislature passed a bill that channels $33 million towards the UAS industry. Of that, $28 million will be used to set up a statewide air traffic control system for UAS, $3 million to upgrade the existing UAS infrastructure, and the remaining $2 million will be used for operations at the state’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Though the choice for UAS testing would predictably lie near the West coast, as it has a higher density of companies working in the space, North Dakota is relevant considering its natural disposition towards hosting UAS test sites. Just as Arizona’s environmental conditions favor pilot runs of autonomous vehicles, North Dakota’s sparse population of less than 800,000 and temperature conditions ranging between sweltering summers and freezing winters are perfect for testing unmanned drones.

The state’s very low population density has led to the state having no restricted air spaces, making it an attractive prospect for companies looking to test their UAS prototypes. According to the UAS Test Site website, North Dakota was chosen as a primary testing ground for UAS because in addition to its favorable flying conditions, it also showed significant commitment from its political leadership and key business decision makers.

At the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the existing infrastructure will be bolstered, and a combination of radar and radio transmissions will be used to track and control drones.  “When a manned airplane is out flying, the pilot or can look out the cockpit window to look for other airplanes and if one is seen, it can be avoided,” said Nicholas Flom, the executive director of the test site. “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.”

North Dakota is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to remove flying limitations within the state, but a full-fledged network rollout will eventually be dictated by the federal government. For now, North Dakota has eliminated UAS risks on an individual use case basis, with drones getting the nod on flying over pipelines and utility lines.

Nonetheless, the tougher challenge would be to navigate through regulations pertaining to “beyond visual line of sight” (BVLOS), a concept that allows unmanned aircraft to fly beyond a visually observable distance. This is a huge deal as all drones fall under the concept, and companies are required to get special waivers from the FAA to fly BVLOS, with these waivers not easy to come by.

A great deal of research on safety and precautions will have to be carried out in the BVLOS space, to make sure drones meet regulatory standards and create a positive public perception.  North Dakota has walked the talk in that regard, financing close to $77 million for its UAS ecosystem – an investment that can be expected to bear fruit in the near future.