BVLOS Flight Testing Set To Begin This Summer In North Dakota

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A new dawn is set to break in North Dakota as researchers prepare to take a crucial step forward in drone flight while many in the unmanned industry await reports of their progress.

In a section of airspace northwest of Grand Forks Air Force Base, researchers representing public and private organizations aim to fly unmanned aircraft beyond the sight line of their pilots starting this summer.

The testing area for BVLOS flights is shown in green on this sectional chart. Photo courtesy of Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Such flights are the norm for military drones, such as the Global Hawks and Predators stationed at the base, but they remains off limits for commercial drones. Once beyond-visual-line-of-sight flying becomes legal, many within the drone industry predict a burst of activity as business models necessitating this type of flight become feasible.

At the Grand Forks base and its onsite aviation business park, Grand Sky, the research team is prepping to start experimental flights utilizing software, radar and other systems to successfully detect and track unmanned aircraft systems in flight.

“The entire UAS industry has been waiting for the ability to repeatedly fly beyond line of sight in commercial air space so that they can demonstrate the true capabilities of these incredible technologies,” Thomas Swoyer, Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., said in a statement. “We are so excited to launch this capability at Grand Sky and provide industry members with exactly what they need to succeed in and advance this industry to the next level of integration.”

Swoyer confirmed flights are set to begin soon during a presentation made at AUVSI Xponential, a UAS industry event held May 8-11 in Dallas.

The research at Grand Sky will utilize the Harris RangeVue system and a combination of several surveillance systems to allow users to achieve real-time situational awareness of manned and unmanned aircraft as required by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to a news release. Proving the capability to develop, execute and repeat safe flight operations to the FAA is key to unlocking BVLOS flight for the entire drone industry.

“Eventually, what we’re going to get to is safety case approval,” Shelly Roman, director of software engineering development and air traffic management for Harris Corp., told a crowd gathered in March for the state-sponsored UAS Industry Day event. “Without that, none of us are going to be flying BVLOS.”

Harris, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Grand Sky, the University of North Dakota, along with a host of other partners, are working in concert to get drones off the ground and out of sight. The test site first submitted its application to develop and test BVLOS flight capabilities to the FAA nearly two years ago and received the green light to proceed this past December.

Laying groundwork

It’s not the first time the FAA has allowed researchers to dabble in commercial BVLOS flight, with BNSF Railway and Insitu completing a federally sanctioned flight over railway infrastructure in 2015.

Northern Plains UAS Test Site staff and partners have explored similar capabilities such as cooperative airspace techniques and visualization research conducted last year, with the current BVLOS project building upon that work.

Before they can put birds in the air, researchers need to complete other aspects of the project. First, a network of systems that will allow the group to detect and monitor aircraft must be built. Part of that network utilizes existing infrastructure such as radar, aircraft transponders and emergency radio and weather towers, but linking it all up doesn’t come cheap.

Part of the system requires the use of Grand Forks Air Force Base’s digital radar system. No link existed from the radar to Grand Sky — the staging area for the test flights — so it needed to be constructed. With a multi-million price tag, the group approached the North Dakota Legislature earlier this year for a grant to pay for the the link and upgrade of other related technology systems at the business park.

A graphic showing infrastructure links necessary for BVLOS flight from Grand Sky. Photo courtesy of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

With the passage of Senate Bill  2018 in April, $3 million was awarded to the project — $2 million from the state commerce department’s strategic investment and improvements fund and $1 million from the state’s general fund. The grant does require that its recipients provide matching funds in the form of cash, property or in-kind consideration totaling $1 million.

The financial support provided by legislators keeps with the state’s mission to continue developing the UAS industry within its borders — more than $37 million had been spent on advancing research and economic development prior to the legislative session.

Taking off

North Dakota’s support of the drone industry and ideal amenities has attracted a number of companies to the state to conduct research or build facilities at Grand Sky.

“Grand Sky is creating a truly unique setting to carry out UAS research and test flights,” George Kirov, vice president and general manager for Harris Commercial UAS Solutions, said in a statement.

The park’s co-location with Grand Forks Air Force Base has made it the staging ground for several research projects, but the current BVLOS initiative will mark what will likely be considered its largest contribution yet to the drone industry upon completion.

A graphic depicting the pilot area of BVLOS flights planned for eastern North Dakota. Photo courtesy of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Once the necessary technological infrastructure is installed, large drones will be used to test the system, which will combine detect and avoid services, command and control services, and airspace and traffic management to form HUBNet — Harris UAS BVLOS Network Infrastructure.

Initial BVLOS flights at Grand Sky will be limited to drones flying within 60 nautical miles — about 69 miles — of Grand Sky. The aircraft won’t be flying unsupervised in early testing. The FAA has required chase planes tail the drones in the air to maintain visual contact once the drones exit their pilot’s field of view.

The goal is to eventually work up to genuine BVLOS flights for real-world commercial applications with a system that is scalable to even larger areas. These types of flights would likely take place in 2018 and inside an oval-shaped pilot area that extends roughly from Grand Forks Air Force Base to just south of Fargo, N.D.  

“The test site will help fly use cases within this network,” Chris Theisen, director of research and development for the N.D. test site, said at UAS Industry Day. “And this network helps support the energy sector, it helps support the precision ag sector.”

In addition to agriculture and energy, other use cases for drones would be tested for inspecting roads and railways, public safety and emergency services, and expanded flight operations.

As processes are proven and additional data is collected, Grand Sky anticipates its BVLOS range will be extended to include the entire state of North Dakota and all classes of aircraft, a news release said.