Second to none: UND and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site

Research legacy, successful partnerships build strong relationship between UND, Northern Plains UAS Test Site

Given that the Northern Plains UAS Test Site has its fingers on the pulse of a $100 billion industry, Executive Director Nicholas Flom feels lucky to have friends only five keypad digits away.

From his office at the UND Tech Accelerator, Flom presides over one of the nation’s seven unmanned aircraft systems test sites supporting the Federal Aviation Administration’s charge to integrate drones into the national airspace system.

So, when a new task or initiative lands on the Test Site’s doorstep, it’s meaningful that experts at the University of North Dakota can be there at moment’s notice, whether by a five-digit phone number or a brisk walk across the parking lot.

Nicholas Flom

“In my four-plus years at this position, and having been with the Test Site since its inception, one of my strategies has been making sure we have a great relationship with the University,” Flom said. “I’m always looking at what I need to do to make that connection stronger. The two of us together are so much better, and that helps both of us achieve our respective missions.”

“Over the last 18 to 24 months, we’re hitting our stride like we never have before,” he added. “What we’re working on now is going to set us up for more significant partnerships, and it makes sense to do it together.”

There is no arguing about the spike in drone industry growth, or the industry’s potential, according to publications such as Business Insider. In February, the publication reported that UAS will soon represent an industry worth hundreds of billions.

According to current numbers from the FAA, close to 900,000 drones have been registered in the United States since 2015. While more than half of those currently registered maintain “recreational” status and fall under Part 107 regulations, the share of “commercial” drones is primed for a surge in the near future.

“We expect the drone services market to grow from $4.4 billion in 2018 to $63.6 billion by 2025,” wrote Divya Joshi on behalf of Business Insider, referring to the sector where UAS are used in both public and private service models (i.e. agriculture, law enforcement, disaster recovery, filmmaking, etc.).

Such a surge will be helped along by advancements in the regulatory landscape, which is where the Test Site comes in. In turn, UND has played a key role in helping North Dakota remain on the forefront of UAS commercialization and integration.

UND and the Test Site, along with its industry partner in L3 Harris, launched the nation’s first beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight network near Hillsboro, N.D., in late 2018. UND archival image.

Success through complimentary partnership

“From a Test Site standpoint, UND was the driver behind a lot of our first projects in the UAS space,” said Flom. Before that, UND was a key sponsor in the statewide effort to stand up the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in 2013.

A November article in UND Today summarized UND’s 15-plus years of “trail blazing” in researching UAS and autonomy. “It’s a story of generating expertise through fundamental research and then expanding discovery through focusing on a new set of challenges,” the story reported about the iterations of UND’s efforts with unmanned systems development.

The Research ND Grant Program was one of the earliest avenues by which UND interfaced with the newly established Test Site. The program provides a path for private industry to match state dollars for university-based research.

“We have taken on some of its biggest projects together,” Flom remarked. He listed command-and-control radio research with what is now Collins Aerospace, damage assessment flight test missions for Xcel Energy, as well as perhaps the biggest highlight: coming together with L3 Harris to develop an industry-first beyond-visual-line-of-sight network first launched in Hillsboro, N.D.

Notably, L3 Harris’ technology is now a key component of the Test Site’s Vantis Network – a first-of-its-kind statewide BVLOS network, which was announced late last year and is now being put in place. Important components of that technology came as a result of UND-generated patents in detect-and-avoid systems.

Mark Askelson

Mark Askelson, professor and executive director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems, said that cooperative research successes with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site have been in part due to UND’s ability to complement the Test Site’s strengths. Both UND and the Test Site have what it takes to “plug in” throughout a project, depending on what’s required, he said.

“The Test Site is great at moving through the process of building safety cases – running the test flights and evaluating the systems in question – and they understand the regulators very well,” Askelson said. “But sometimes it might be easier for UND to get into the detailed data analysis, for example. UND can also help people move through the earlier stages of developing an autonomous system – creating designs, producing algorithms and building prototypes.”

Essentially, the Test Site still needs the “roots” of research in many things they do, said Chris Theisen, director of research and development at the Test Site. Without many researchers on staff, Flom and Theisen look to UND and RIAS for subject-matter expertise when necessary.

“When we’re getting projects from funding agencies such as NASA, the Department of Homeland Security or the FAA, oftentimes our goals and objectives require data collection, processing, manned flights and UAS pilots,” Theisen said.

“If we don’t have the staff to offer those functions internally, we’re looking to UND for opportunities to partner and support us. There are many experts there whom we’re able to leverage, and our close integration with UND provides a lot of synergies and activities for collaboration.”

UND and the Test Site have consistently partnered in expanding BVLOS flight capabilities, including field testing for a state-of-the-art command and control radio system in 2019. Click the image to see UND Today‘s coverage of the development. UND archival image.

Capabilities “second to none”

The “vice versa” nature of the relationship is one noticed by all. “It’s a two-way relationship, a beneficial back-and-forth, that helps each of us meet our goals and objectives in our research activities,” Theisen said.

UND’s work in the FAA’s Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence – a consortium of 24 universities also aiming to help along UAS integration – often involves the Test Site as a subcontractor, for instance.

“When there are requirements for flight activities, or expertise in regulation and standards, we have been able to provide those resources to the University in their ASSURE work,” Theisen said.

As good as the partnerships have been over the years, Askelson recognized a key factor that keeps the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and UND’s efforts aligned and involving of one another.

“You can have two entities that often need each other and they don’t get along, so they won’t work well together, right? Any effective partnership is driven by people,” Askelson said.

“I have to give the folks at the Test Site a lot of credit for their professionalism. Ultimately, they see this work the same way we do: they’re trying to solve problems for their customers as effectively, safely and cost-effectively as they can to provide the best answers possible.

“It’s great to have the complementary capabilities, and an alignment of needs, but it’s really the people behind it that make it work.”

Chris Theisen

UND’s history of activity in the UAS research space is what has brought such relationships to the fore. Before the Northern Plains UAS Test Site existed, Theisen worked under Askelson as a researcher at UND, tackling some of those early detect-and-avoid projects. For a time after the Test Site designation, Theisen’s time was split between his UND research and establishing the Test Site’s research-and-development capabilities.

“Chris had a perfect dual role during that time,” Flom said, “and we were able to get involved in projects early on because of the ways Test Site personnel were connected. Chris in particular really helped bridge the gap and formed what collaborations would look like going forward.”

The formation of RIAS years later helped maintain the nature of those early connections, which Theisen credited for the Test Site’s continued ability to easily refer to UND’s experts on a number of questions.

“Sometimes there are a lot of quick-turn projects that need information for proposals,” Theisen said. “RIAS has given me point persons to ask, ‘Hey, does UND have this capability?’

“This has made it easy to find the right people to support a research project, and it’s one of the many things I like about the relationship.”

Since the creation of RIAS in 2017, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site has had better connections than ever to UND’s subject-matter experts in UAS and autonomous systems. UND archival image.

John Mihelich, vice president for research and economic development at UND, remarked that the Test Site will continue to be a key partner as UND pursues projects in the national security arena, and in autonomous systems research in particular.

John Mihelich

“Working together, we also hope to be a research-and-development core for developing the industry in the state of North Dakota,” Mihelich said. “The Test Site and UND research, coupled with other state assets, the Department of Commerce and strong state and industry support, will make North Dakota the place to test, evaluate and develop UAS and autonomous technology, as well as surrounding commercial activity. Second to none.”

From his own administrative perspective, Flom said that the “closely connected but not the same” status of UND and the Test Site provides flexibilities for both parties, whether through the aforementioned access to experts and resources or project timelines that otherwise wouldn’t work in an academic context.

“Even when it comes to support services, our IT support is coming from the University, which has helped us out in being able to take on some of our bigger initiatives,” said Flom. “And we’ve been able to maintain these capabilities along the way.”

That capability became apparent this month as the Test Site and UND began working on a marquee federal project testing Air Domain Awareness technologies. At the last minute, the Test Site was asked to set up a local network for the sensors undergoing testing, which wasn’t part of their tasking. Instead of having to tell their sponsors “no,” the Test Site was able to call up their partners at UND and find the support they needed.

“Because of the resources that the University has, we have been able to tell these major partners that we can handle what they need for their projects, and that will continue to be a really big deal for the Test Site,” Flom declared.

“As I said, those moments are literally a five-digit phone call away for us.”