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North Dakota Begins Initial Launch of BVLOS Network, Taps Volansi to Provide Drones for Testing

BY Zacc Dukowitz
24 September 2020

Last year the state of North Dakota invested $33 million in UAS infrastructure, with the goal of building a widespread BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) network within the state.

Photo credit: Volansi

The investment is starting to pay off.

Just last week the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS)*, headquartered in Grand Forks, ND, announced that it is beginning to implement part of the state’s new BVLOS network.

The initial launch of the network will take place in the areas surrounding Williston and Watford City, in western North Dakota. This site was chosen for the existing state and local government infrastructure, and for the commercial use cases for flying drones BVLOS in the area.

[The site] is ideally located in the heart of North Dakota’s oil and gas industry and covers a population center that will directly benefit from the network. This means that even the very first stage of the network will be commercially viable.

– Nicholas Flom, Executive Director of NPUASTS

Implementation will be supported by L3Harris Technologies and Thales USA, two leading aviation companies that have been selected to build key infrastructure for the network.

The initial rollout of the network has already started, and will include extensive verification and validation system testing in coordination with the FAA. This rigorous testing of the network will help ensure that it’s safe, and allow the ND team to establish procedures for drone pilots who want to use the network.

System testing of the network is absolutely necessary for safety, and it will also allow us to perform use-case development flights to set the standard requirements for any aircraft seeking to fly on the network.

– Jim Cieplak, Program Manager of ND’s Statewide BVLOS Network

*Note: The NPUASTS is one of seven FAA test sites for UAS in the country. Its mission is to work with FAA and industry partners to develop systems, rules, and procedures to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System (NAS) without negatively impacting existing general or commercial aviation.

About North Dakota’s BVLOS Network

North Dakota features plenty of opportunities for commercial drone use, including work in Oil and Gas as well as Agriculture, making it a natural location for a UAS testing site.

Photo credit: Volansi

These factors certainly contributed to the state winning one of the ten spots in the UAS IPP (Integration Pilot Program) three years ago, with an application that proposed testing the expansion of UAV operations at night and flying BVLOS.

[Related reading: It’s Official—The UAS IPP Will End in October]

Way back in 2014, before the Part 107 rules even existed, DroneLife wrote about the extensive drone testing being done in North Dakota, reporting that some had taken to calling it the Silicon Valley of the drone industry.

All of these factors contributed to the FAA’s decision to establish the NPUASTS in North Dakota, in order to support all the drone testing already being conducted in the state, and to initiate new tests.

But the statewide BVLOS network is by far the biggest, most ambitious project that drone researchers have undertaken in North Dakota. Although NASA and the FAA have been conducting UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) testing for some time, no functioning network that could enable BVLOS operations yet exists in the U.S., and especially not one of the size and scope North Dakota is building.

Once North Dakota has built out its network and has it fully operational, it will provide a model for how similar networks can be created elsewhere in the country.

This model could potentially open the door to the normalization of BVLOS operations everywhere, which could in turn help the drone industry grow at a rapid pace since many commercial use cases for drones are currently stifled by the inability to fly BVLOS.

We’ve talked about North Dakota’s statewide BVLOS network as a turnkey product. Extensive testing and validation of the system during development is part of that. The network will be widely accessible to support public and commercial use cases because of this testing.

– Nicholas Flom, Executive Director of NPUASTS

As indicated in the quote above, North Dakota’s BVLOS network should present a viable model for many different kinds of BVLOS scenarios once complete. The network will cover both rural and urban areas, and it’s being designed to be easy to use and access by various types of drone pilots flying various types of missions.

Volansi Raises $50 Million, Signs on to Provide Drones for ND Network

For those who have been wondering if investor confidence in the drone industry has waned, Volansi’s recent series B may provide an answer.

Last week Volansi, a California-based manufacturer of cargo delivery drones that use VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) technology, announced that it had raised $50 million in a Series B fundraising round, bringing its total amount raised up to $75 million. The funds came from some of Silicon Valley’s top venture funds, including YCombinator, Lightspeed Venture Partners and Harpoon Ventures.

So what does Volansi’s series B have to do with North Dakota’s BVLOS network?

Lots. The week before news broke about Volansi’s series B, NPUASTS shared the news that it had selected the company’s VOLY C10 drone for Site Acceptance Testing and use-case development in building out the statewide BVLOS network.

Autonomous Drone Delivery by Volans-i

Volansi’s involvement in testing for North Dakota’s BVLOs network is sure to garner it lots of business, since the company will likely emerge as the trusted drone for future, similar efforts that might take place elsewhere in the U.S.

In sharing its reasons for choosing Volansi, NPUASTS stated that Volansi has “…the ability to support different payloads to exercise goals/objectives of the different Use Cases . . . and provides for FAA advanced approvability in that it is in process to obtain an FAA durability and reliability type certification.”

According to a press release from Volansi, the VOLY C10 is “the workhorse of Volansi’s drone fleet.” It has the ability to carry up to 10-pounds of cargo over 50 miles, and it has already performed operations in Africa, the Caribbean, and the U.S.

Volansi also recently signed an agreement with North Carolina’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to conduct commercial, middle-mile drone delivery projects.

Excited about North Dakota launching its BVLOS network? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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