GRAND FORKS, ND — The stage is set for a flurry of drone activity to ramp up in this year in North Dakota.
On the docket are a number of major research undertakings that aim to test flying unmanned aircraft beyond the line of visual sight and the development of an research institute for unmanned and autonomous systems at the University of North Dakota.
Research partnerships and the new institute combined with a ever-developing commercial drone presence create a foundation for continued growth and development of unmanned technology in the Grand Forks region.
Two companies announced large research endeavors tin February that will be centered in North Dakota. First, Xcel Energy revealed a partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration and local entities to explore the safe use of unmanned aircraft systems for inspecting critical infrastructure.
The energy company has previously tested inspections of structures, including conducting indoor flights in spaces more easily navigated by a small aircraft than a person.
“We inspect boilers, we inspect different pieces of equipment, we inspect our stacks,” said Eileen Lockhart, UAS program manger for Xcel. “We can get into very tight and small spaces safely versus building scaffolding or some kind of ladder system where our employees have to climb 15 to 20 feet up. UAS is a huge benefit to us not only from safety perspective but also from an efficiency perspective.”
In 2017, Xcel Energy plans at least one beyond visual-line-of-sight mission using drone technology along transmission lines in a rural area.
The inspection project is the continuation of research Xcel began this past summer when it collaborated with UND, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and others to determine if drones could be used to detect simulated storm damage in Mayville, N.D. That project received financial support through the state’s Research North Dakota program, which provides matching grant funds to companies looking to partner with universities to research, develop and commercialize ideas.
“The main motivation for Research North Dakota to have universities build research capacity that has immediate application or medium-term application to industrial need,” said Grant McGimpsey, UND vice president for research and economic development. “So what we’re doing is building that expertise. We’ve obviously built it in terms of UAS, but we’re also building in the area of data and data analytics. How do you convert those ones and zeros that don’t mean anything into actionable information?”
On Feb. 28, Harris Corp. announced it also was the recipient of a Research North Dakota grant to develop capabilities for BVLOS drone flights. Using grant funds, Harris and its partners will create aviation-grade network services specifically for UAS operations that would be tested regionally but capable of scaling to the cover the United States.
Growing support system
North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site can be considered the key to launching these types of research projects.
The test site researches the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace and that has brought a number of companies to its doorstep over the years seeking to fly drones in ways that the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t fully opened to the industry.
Before rules governing commercial UAS flights became active in August 2016, companies ranging from insurance providers to railroads went to the test site to figure out how to use the aircraft for business purposes.
In December, the test site received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to test using a ground-based radar system as a means of tracking unmanned aircraft during flight. With such permissions limited to a very small group of users, it’s likely Northern Plains will see increased interest in its capabilities from companies.
“What we’re here to do is engage industry and support industry on things they can’t do on their own,” said Nicholas Flom, the test site’s executive director. “We’re trying to enable beyond visual line of sight flying at high altitudes and at low altitudes.”
Test site staff members assisted Xcel Energy with its previous research in Mayville and will play a similar role in the company’s testing efforts this year as well.
UND also is a project partner, and McGimpsey said the university’s work with the energy company helped shape and drive another major endeavor for the school: the founding of the Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Systems.
“From the university’s perspective, this has been a great project because it has been one of the catalysts behind creating the Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Systems that we just announced last week,” McGimpsey said. “So without the demonstration of what we’re doing in flight, data and cyber security and without being able to demonstrate that this has some important, real-world impacts, it would have been a little more difficult to put this institute together.”
UND announced the institute’s creation last month and is in the midst of hiring a director to lead and develop the organization, which school officials say will help UND maintain its leadership position in unmanned education and research.
“This is one way for us to say, ‘This is us, we’re here,’” McGimpsey said.