GRAND FORKS, N.D. — If there’s one thing a group of unmanned aircraft systems researchers in North Dakota has learned, good things come to those who wait.
For staff at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, an organization tasked with researching the safe integration of drone technology into national airspace, waiting has come with rewards that the group is often the first to receive.
It was no different this past December, when state leaders announced the Federal Aviation Administration had granted the test site permission to conduct beyond-the-visual-line-of-sight drone flights
Though military drones complete these types of flights every day, it’s a capability unavailable to commercial operators, save for a small group the FAA has selected. The Northern Plains UAS Test Site is the first test site to receive such permissions from the agency.
BVLOS capabilities are expected to make using drones for tasks that require coverage of large areas into feasible and sustainable business models. Energy infrastructure inspections and agriculture are two areas of particular interest to North Dakota drone businesses and their potential clients.
Nicholas Flom, the test site’s executive director, recently recounted the yearlong journey to receiving the approval for a crowd gathered in Grand Forks. It began when industry members began asking what it would take to fly beyond the line of sight in North Dakota.
The permissions are months away from being granted to the remainder of the drone industry. With their arrival, experts predict the true potential of unmanned technology can be explored. The economic implications of the state’s test site scoring early access to BVLOS operations have been touted by state leaders.
Many of them were involved in helping test site personnel craft a concept of operations, a plan it needed to submit to the FAA in order to secure permission to fly beyond line of sight.
Over the course of several months starting in September 2015, stakeholders were tasked with poking holes in the test site’s concept. In conference call after conference call, questions were asked and suggestions were made.
“Right at the end of January, we get on a phone call and were on there for about an hour, went through all the changes and said does anyone have any questions?” Flom recalled. “It was silent. And we went, ‘Ah, we’re close.'”
The key to unlocking the potential of BVLOS flight for researchers is a ground-based radar system located at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Known as digital airport surveillance radar or DASR 11, the radar system has a detection range of nearly 70 miles.
“We’re using a ground-based radar to see and avoid other traffic,” Flom said.
The North Dakota researchers’ request conduct such operations caused a bit of a stir in the FAA office. The agency hadn’t handled one like it and was unsure who was responsible for approving it. An FAA task force convened later that May, and its members ultimately granted the test site permission to move forward in December.
Before research flights can start, the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s radar system needs to be linked to Grand Sky, a 217-acre technology park under construction on the base.
Establishing that link doesn’t translate into instant BVLOS flights.
The FAA has directed the test site to use a chase aircraft for early flights. A chase aircraft is a plane that tails a drone during flight to keep a pair of human eyes on the drone at all times — even if the pilot is miles away.
Chase planes have seen use in other test site research, including a large agricultural project conducted this past summer in Hillsboro, N.D. During that time, researchers flew a large unmanned aircraft to collect imagery of cropland in an area 40 miles long by 4 miles wide.
For the test site’s BVLOS project, flights will be concentrated in an area northwest of Grand Forks Air Force Base. The area is a prime spot for such research as aircraft rarely pass through it on a daily basis and the ground below is home to very few people.
“We’ll prove out this area initially and then we’ll be able to expand to the southwest,” Flom said. “Fargo happens to also have this kind of radar, Minot has this kind of radar, Bismarck has this kind of radar. It’d be great … to start connecting all of these and really start to expand the operational capability. Then we’re not just limited to one 60 mile area out of Grand Forks. Maybe someday we’ll be able to take off in Grand Forks and land one of these in Fargo or Bismarck.”
A Predator drone manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. will be used initially for the research, but Flom said the concept is crafted so any aircraft could be incorporated into it.