Navigating the Future of UAS in North Dakota
Submitted by the North Dakota Department of Transportation
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) is a United States Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initiative designed to facilitate the safe incorporation of UAS into communities across the country. The IPP is helping state, local, and tribal governments introduce complex UAS operations, like beyond visual line of sight, operations over people and night operations, into their communities.
The North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) was among ten participants selected in May 2018 for the IPP. The NDDOT works with Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS) and dozens of other state and private industry partners on UAS missions. Each of the lead participants are tasked with testing the components necessary for eventual integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS). UAS operations that include package delivery, infrastructure inspection, and enabling first responders to name a few are being tested across the country. The data that is collected from these operations will help the FAA establish guidelines and regulations both for safety and efficiency.
NDSU Tailgating Event
The first public mission of the North Dakota IPP partners was a drone flight over people on September 29, 2018 at the Fargo Dome. The Test Siter, the NDDOT, and their partners flew multiple drones over a tailgating event prior to a North Dakota State University (NDSU) football game. One of the aircraft was being flown for media purposes by CNN and the other was being used by first responders, represented by Botlink. Significant here was not only a flight over a crowd of people attending the tailgate event, but that approvals were issued for simultaneous drone operations in controlled airspace, as Fargo’s Hector International Airport is in close proximity to the Fargo Dome.
This mission not only provided an opportunity to demonstrate how these kinds of flights can be done safely, but it also marked the first time the FAA had granted a waiver for flight over human beings with a parachute. This specific function provided an extra level of safety for the crowd and paved the way for future waivers and flights over people using parachutes.
Spring Flood Control Efforts
Spring 2019 brought with it flooding of the Red River on the eastern side of the state. North Dakota IPP partners used drones to monitor flooding conditions between Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, MN as well as further north along Interstate 29, where flooding impacted road conditions. There were multiple UAS operators executing these missions. Most of the operators were able to be coordinated with flying under the privileges of Part 107 while another received approval for operations over people to fulfill their mission set.
This particular effort also allowed for wider dissemination of flood information to the public and at the same time worked to normalize the use of UAS in these kinds of public safety efforts. Oftentimes, people’s strongest association with UAS is surveillance, so drones can make them uncomfortable. A positive side-effect of this mission was anecdotal evidence of increased public acceptance of drone use; pictures of the flooding taken by UAS during this mission were widely shared on social media in the area.
Waivers for Flight Over People
In June of this year, the NDDOT received a four-year waiver from the FAA to operate UAS over people. This marks the first time a ND state agency has received a waiver to routinely conduct UAS operations over people. This initial waiver paved the way for other state entities, including the ND Highway Patrol and the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department, to receive similar waivers. UAS flights will be used to help reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries and to improve emergency response efforts, especially in rural areas.
This was facilitated in part through the use of a SafeAir Parachute Recovery System from ParaZero. This system monitors flight in real time, detects critical failures, and autonomously triggers a parachute. It also employs a warning buzzer to alert people below of the falling drone. This SafeAir system means that even if something goes wrong in a flight over people, the risk to the people below is mitigated. This SafeAir system received third-party validation from the NPUASTS with over 45 aerial deployment tests in various failure scenarios.
Successful Flights in Urban Areas
The North Dakota IPP team executed successful flights in an urban environment, beyond visual line of sight, and over people just this August. The flights were operated by AirBus Aerial and Skyskopes using NDDOT and NPUASTS waivers and existing radar infrastructure, including Echodyne’s EchoGuard Radar System, for detect and avoid capabilities. Detect and avoid refers to a UAS being able to detect obstacles in its flight path and avoid a collision. UAS were used to fly over and inspect Xcel Energy electric system infrastructure in Grand Forks, ND.
Because the distribution lines provide a constant and static route, this use case was a natural first step in testing UAS flights in urban areas. There is a consistent flight path for repeatable missions under varying conditions like different times of day, varying levels of foot and vehicle traffic, and varying levels of other airspace traffic in the vicinity.
These efforts by the North Dakota IPP partners will help pave the way for safe UAS flights in communities across the country and will facilitate industry growth and expansion using UAS technology. The NDDOT, Northern Plains UAS Test Site and partners in the Integrated Pilot Program are excited to be at the forefront of these exciting developments.