Thales has been chosen to build the United States’ first statewide drone infrastructure network.
North Dakota is a thriving ecosystem of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in public and private use. Through the development of Vantis, a statewide network enabling UAS flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), it is poised to become the national epicentre of commercial UAS activity. Vantis is the first such programme of its scale in the US.
A state selection committee made up of members of the North Dakota Department of Commerce and Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), which administers Vantis, selected Thales as the long-term systems integrator for Vantis design, operation, and maintenance.
One of the major barriers to commercial UAS flights – package deliveries, infrastructure inspections, search and rescue efforts – is that UAS currently must remain within visual line of sight of the pilot. Vantis is a State of North Dakota-funded technology infrastructure that uses radar, radios, and other communications equipment on towers distributed throughout the state to provide command, control, and situational awareness to UAS pilots flying aircraft within the network’s coverage area. With Vantis, UAS pilots can see and avoid obstacles and fly safely at a distance – which means commercial UAS flights that are economically feasible and scalable to the size of business.
“North Dakota continues to be the nation’s proving ground for the testing, training and commercialisation of unmanned aircraft systems, and this partnership with Thales to build the first-of-its-kind Vantis statewide network will help cement our state’s reputation as a UAS leader,” said North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, who chairs the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority. “Our state’s nearly $50m investment in this groundbreaking technology is attracting companies, jobs and entrepreneurs and diversifying our economy for the benefit of all North Dakotans.”
As the systems integration partner for Vantis, Thales will deploy new communications and surveillance infrastructure in phases across the state. This infrastructure will be supported by a Mission and Network Operations Center (MNOC) that uses the State of North Dakota’s fibre optic telecommunications network along with robust digital services deployed on cloud-based infrastructure to support operational resilience.
Vantis infrastructure has been installed at key sites in western North Dakota, where testing is currently underway. Testing standards were developed in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure they are rigorous, do not interfere with existing manned aviation operations, and to prove the safety and reliability of Vantis moving forward. Currently, approvals to fly BVLOS must be obtained directly from the FAA on an individual basis. Working with the FAA as the Vantis network is built and proven will enable any operator who flies on the network to receive the appropriate approvals to facilitate true BVLOS flights – something that does not exist at this scale anywhere in US.
“BVLOS operations are the greatest economic driver for sustained commercial UAS use-cases and, until now, there hasn’t been any common, or shared-use, infrastructure to support routine BVLOS operations,” said Todd Donovan, vice president, airspace mobility solutions, Americas, Thales. “Ultimately, the approach for unmanned systems with Vantis in North Dakota will likely shape how we approach UAS integration more broadly.”
As the system matures, Vantis will continue its expansion across the state. The expansion strategy targets areas with existing use cases where commercial interests and capable UAS operators intersect, such as the initial stage in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. The second stage of implementation will include the Red River Valley, priming Vantis to support businesses in two of the state’s largest metropolitan areas as well as one of the major agricultural regions in the state. Vantis will then begin connecting these major economic powerhouse areas across North Dakota.