UAS BVLOS network successfully tested in eastern North Dakota

By Patrick C. Miller | January 02, 2019

The University of North Dakota (UND) says it and its research partners achieved an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) industry milestone last month with the first-ever drone test flights over a specially developed network.

The university partnered with Harris Corp. and the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site (NPUASTS) for the successful flights on Dec. 21. They occurred about a mile west of Hillsboro in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota. UND said the development has the potential to open the skies for the broad commercial use of drones.

The North Dakota-based Harris UAS Network—combing detect-and-avoid capabilities developed at UND and UAS technology solutions and services from Harris—is a system of integrated ground infrastructure enabling commercial UAS to fly farther and safer in the national airspace beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS).

The new North Dakota network monitors a 55-mile-long corridor between the cities of Grand Forks and Fargo, representing the drone industry’s first-ever implementation of wide-area, multi-user UAS BVLOS airspace, according to researchers at UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS).

Last month’s flights tested the Harris UAS Network’s ability to provide drone pilots with airspace awareness to stay clear of manned aircraft and other objects. The network is enhanced by locally deployed sensors for both cooperative and non-cooperative radar surveillance, as well as integration of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) NextGen UAS surveillance data feed.

Mark Askelson, interim executive director of UND’s RIAS and an expert on radar technology, said the successful test flights in North Dakota are a big step toward unleashing a multi-billion-dollar industry for unmanned capabilities. RIAS is part of UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

Chris Theisen, director of research and development for the NPUASTS, said the UAS network is part of a North Dakota Department of Commerce ResearchND project that grew out of prior UAS research collaborations between UND, the NPUASTS and Harris. With the deployment of the Harris UAS Network, Theisen and his crew are executing test flights and monitoring the effectiveness of its technologies.

The Harris UAS Network got another shot of momentum recently when North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum showed his support for the project by recommending $30 million to develop statewide infrastructure supporting UAS BLVOS operations.

“The idea is that what we’re doing here with Harris and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site will serve as a template to build out to other locations in the state and then across the country,” Askelson said.