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Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, stands for a portrait in the test site's offices at the Skalicky Tech Incubator on the University of North Dakota campus in Grand Forks, N.D. IMAGE: Nick Nelson/Forum News Service

Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site helping unleash the UAS industry’s full potential

Editor’s note: Nicholas Flom is executive director for the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. The Grand Forks, N.D.-based organization is one of seven nationwide that have been designated by the Federal Aviation Administration to research the safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system. 

This Q&A with Flom has been edited for clarity and length.

This year, the North Dakota Legislature approved a $33 million proposal, $28 million of which will build a statewide Unmanned Aircraft Systems network. Why is the network needed?

Flom: Right now, there are probably 5,000 airplanes up in the air at any given time over the United States. That’s the norm. Those aircraft can be coordinated through voice communication; it's pretty routine, and the system works.

Now, imagine deploying 5,000 drones in a single community for everything from delivering packages to conducting searches for the benefit of first responders.

Before you dismiss that as science fiction, remember that while there are maybe 300,000 manned airplanes registered, more than a million drones already have been registered. And we're just on the very front edge of this stuff.

In this new UAV environment, voice communication no longer will serve very well. We also will need radars and radios in order to let the UAS fly longer distances. 

We need technology, and that’s what we’re working to install.

What kind of technology?

Flom: To begin with, we’re going to connect radars so that UAS can avoid existing manned

aviation traffic. Then we’ll add radios to command and control the UAS. All of this will be

operated using a UAS traffic management system.

Using that UAS traffic management system, you’ll start by telling the system your flight plan: I'm going to send my aircraft from point A to point B. And in doing so, you'll be kind of reserving that airspace.

Then will an air-traffic-control center of some kind get involved?

Flom: We're in the final stages of defining what the architectural elements are going to look like. One portion will be a network operations center; but I don’t expect it to feature traditional air traffic controllers, calling pilots up on the radio and telling them to maneuver. 

Instead, the center’s personnel will be monitoring the airspace while the unmanned aircraft will be talking with each other automatically, more so than we're used to in the regular, manned aircraft space.

Understand, we're not trying to invent this; there already has been a lot of work on it. We're not trying to come up with our own North Dakota Air Traffic Control System. Instead, we're trying to leverage the work that NASA and others have done in developing this.

Tell us about your own background and how you came to be the executive director.

Flom: I'm from the Minneapolis area – Richfield, Minn. – and I came up here to the University of North Dakota to go to school. I went through UND’s pilot training program and became a commercial pilot.

And as I tell people all the time, I thought I could not get out of North Dakota fast enough. 

But before long, I realized that there was more to aviation out there. And I especially realized how farsighted North Dakota was in seeing the potential of this new UAS industry. 

In 2005, they had the Base Realignment Commission or BRAC, and of course, Grand Forks Air Force Base lost its tanker mission. In my view, you get to make two decisions when something's taken away: You can either complain and try to get back what you lost, or you can find the next great thing.

North Dakota and the region took the latter route. The base picked up a UAS mission, UND started an unmanned aircraft major, Northland Community and Technical College started its UAS Maintenance Technician program, and so on.

Then, as you know, North Dakota applied and was selected in 2013 as one of the six original UAS test sites around the country. It was a competitive process; 25 entities had applied for the six positions. But North Dakota was farsighted again in that it had already prepared itself by bringing on a director before the state had been selected. 

That was Bob Becklund, and I ended up being Bob's first hire as the test site’s safety director. 

Bob is in the National Guard, and not only did he eventually get promoted to brigadier general, but also he became the deputy adjutant general for the state. That opened up the executive director position, so I applied and have been the director now for about three years.

In short, I stuck around North Dakota, and I've been here for over 20 years. I have no desire to go anywhere else.

How did the infrastructure project come about?

Flom: There’s a saying, “It takes you a lifetime to become an overnight success.” North Dakota’s success with UAS didn’t just happen, in other words. It involved multiple governors and multiple congressional and legislative sessions, as well as decades-old elements such as Grand Forks Air Force Base and the aerospace school at UND that already were in place.

But there’s a follow-up to that saying, which is, “For your encore, they don’t give you that much time.” So, we’ve become the leader, and now it’s important for us to keep moving and progressing. 

And that’s what the Legislature has done by authorizing this infrastructure project.

Will the project be building new radar and radio towers around the state?

Flom: Actually, the first question we’re asking is, what does the state already have access to? For example, the FAA has four large radars – one each in Grand Forks, Fargo, Minot and Bismarck. Likewise, the state already has a statewide radio network; it’s used by first responders.

There already are towers out there, in other words. So, what if we can leverage those towers and bolt on our equipment rather than building towers of our own? 

This might not result in 100 percent coverage of the state at first. But over time, that percentage would increase, exactly as it has with cell-phone coverage. We want to do that same thing.

And here’s what might be the most important part: We’re not trying to build a one-off

solution. We're trying to make sure that when the FAA puts out its standards, we're meeting all of those.

We want to set the standard for the country, in other words. That way, if you have an airplane that flies in North Dakota on this network, you won't need to put new technology onboard your aircraft if you're flying in Montana. 

We’re working in lockstep with the FAA to make sure they not only understand that this initiative's going on, but also that we're doing it in line with their vision as well.

What kinds of uses for UAS do you foresee?

Flom: We've been working with companies such as Xcel Energy, which has requirements to fly the utility’s transmission lines on an annual basis. That means they have a guy in a helicopter flying low and slow close to live power lines. It's dangerous, and given that it’s just a person looking out of an airplane, Xcel may not even be getting the best data.

So they're asking, how can we make this safer? How can we get better information? Unmanned aircraft are an obvious answer.

Also, one of the best cases for flying a drone is in western North Dakota. As I mentioned, Xcel has yearly inspection requirements; meanwhile, oil companies have biweekly requirements. Every two weeks, their pipelines have to be inspected. That’s a great use for drones, and we’ve barely begun to tap into it.

You see, it takes infrastructure of the kind that I’ve been describing to support those kinds of advanced operations. And as of now, the individual companies have to build out their own networks. For example, BNSF – the rail company – has been a front runner in using UAS for rail inspection. But they literally had to set up their own network to enable their operations. 

We don't do that in other parts of aviation. I go to the Grand Forks airport; I don't go to the Grand Forks Delta Airport or the Grand Forks UND Airport. Instead, the aircraft from different companies use the same infrastructure; and for UAS, that’s what our statewide network will enable.

Think of it this way: Amazon and other companies would like to use drones to deliver packages to your house. Some years after that happens, you can expect to see flying cars; the first version likely will have a manned pilot, but over time, those aircraft, too, probably will become unmanned. 

That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about. We're helping NASA, the FAA and other organizations develop the needed infrastructure as well as safety rules, privacy rules, traffic-control rules and other regulations, all across the board.