2022: A big year for unmanned aerial systems in North Dakota

Published: Dec. 23, 2022 at 1:53 PM CST
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WILLISTON, N.D. (KUMV) - Unmanned aerial systems are becoming more common throughout North Dakota thanks to statewide interest and support. Efforts to allow pilots to fly them beyond their visual line of sight continues to create new possibilities for these machines.

From captivating the audience at the Babe Ruth World Series to helping power utilities identify downed powerlines during the April blizzards, unmanned aerial systems made several headlines over the past year. These are just some of the use cases being tested in northwest North Dakota. More are being discovered through the Vantis Network, which allows drones to fly beyond visual line of sight. The Northern Plains UAS Test Site is in charge of developing the network.

“I look at drones as something that can augment and supplement traditional ways of doing things. At this point, it’s unimaginable what you can do with them. We have to get the technology out there and see. I think the use cases are endless in my opinion,” said Trevor Woods, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Growing interest in UAS also calls for a larger workforce. TrainND Northwest started to hold courses to train pilots this year through the Ascent Unmanned Aeronautical Academy.

“The UAS sector as a whole, has so much and it’s ready to explode. It’s important to us as a training organization to be ready with programs to get the workforce out there to be able to support that when it does,” said Kenley Nebeker, executive director of TrainND Northwest.

The City of Williston is also going all-in with UAS. The Economic Development Department spent the year working with a company to research potential development of commercial UAS operations. The results of their efforts are expected to be released soon.

“We’re going to be getting together with a lot of the other economic developers in western North Dakota, finding a way that we can reach the masses on the UAS sector and say here’s the infrastructure we got, here’s the opportunities for development in western North Dakota,” said Shawn Wenko, city administrator.

While most UAS operations are taking place in either northwest or northeast North Dakota, it hasn’t stopped organizations like the Mandan Police Department from getting in on the action by using them for search and rescue operations. Similar to aviation in the 1920s, those in the industry say this is just the beginning for drones, with much more to come in 2023.

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site expects to add infrastructure to the Fargo area next year. Operational testing will still continue in northwest North Dakota.