FAA expected to approve BVLOS flights at ND UAS test site

By Patrick C. Miller | December 22, 2016

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota is poised to become the first test site authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct beyond-visual- line-of-sight (BVLOS) operations for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Speaking at a roundtable discussion Thursday morning with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he expects the FAA to next week announce BVLOS approval for the agency’s test site based in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

“The FAA’s going to announce that we will be the first place in the country—that our Northern Plains Test Site—will fly beyond line of sight,” he said.

The meeting was held in Northrop Grumman’s new facility at the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park adjacent to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. It was attended by more than 20 governmental, education and business leaders who have been active in developing unmanned aircraft system (UAS) opportunities in the region since 2005.

“There are so many partnerships here in an area where we have the airspace to truly develop concurrent airspace use between manned and unmanned aircraft—military, civilian and all aspects of educational aviation as well,” Hoeven said. “We try to be first in all these different areas because we want to develop concurrent airspace use here.”

Nick Flom, director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, noted it was nearly three years ago that the FAA created the test sites at six locations around the country.

“Essentially, in three years, we’ve gone from zero flight operations to high-altitude, beyond-visual-line-of-sight approvals. That’s what we’re hoping for,” he said. “That is a tremendous way forward. We’re happy that the North Dakota test site is playing a big part in it.”

Flom said North Dakota’s UAS test site has been working with the FAA for more than a year to secure approval for BVLOS operations. He said the discussions are reaching the final stages as the agency works out the last details.

For two of Grand Sky’s anchor tenants—Northrop Grumman and General Atomics—Flom said the ability to conduct BVLOS operations with a runway for large UAS is critical. Currently, a chase aircraft is required to accompany any UAS flying BVLOS.

“They don’t want to use a chase aircraft,” Flom stressed. “This is now an opportunity for them to conduct flights within a 60-mile radius of Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Grand Sky business park. They can’t do this anywhere else.”

During Goldfein’s visit, Hoeven said they planned discuss the use of the digital air control radar (DASR-11) at Grand Forks Air Force Base as part of BVLOS operations for UAS.

“The radar is one of the key elements to our operations,” Flom explained. “We can leverage the use of a radar observer, taking the visual observer out of the chase aircraft and putting him behind a display screen. The observer’s going to be communicating with the pilot flying the UAS on how to avoid any traffic in the area.”

Hoeven said he invited Goldfein to North Dakota to see firsthand the unique capabilities offered by the Grand Forks Air Force Base and Grand Sky.

“Our facility will enable the FAA and DoD (Department of Defense) to work together in one location,” he said. “We’ll be able to do research, testing, training and deployment without chase aircraft statewide across North Dakota. That can’t be done anyplace else in the country and will give us a competitive edge.”