FARGO — The North Dakota Legislature has tabbed $20 million for Vantis, the state’s unmanned aircraft systems network, to expand its capabilities to Cass, Grand Forks and Traill counties in the eastern part of the state.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, alongside Vantis Executive Director Nick Flom, announced the funding Thursday, June 10, at the Grand Farm just south of Fargo. Several legislators, including Grand Forks Republican Sen. Ray Holmberg, also attended the announcement.

In addition to the $20 million pledged to Vantis, $7 million was allocated to continue development of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, while Grand Sky on the Grand Forks Air Force Base received $3 million.

Sanford, who also chairs the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, said the additional funding to span Vantis from the Bakken Formation in the western portion of the state to the Red River Valley has been over a decade in the making. The lion’s share of the new funding will be aimed at deploying Vantis in eastern North Dakota for agricultural uses.

“It’s really just the government seeding investment to generate new industry and new capital deployment,” Sanford said. “We’ll look forward to taking the full faith we got from the Legislature with the $20 million investment and deploying these assets here.”

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Flom called the state’s funding “pretty incredible.” The funding is a key reason North Dakota is the only state in the United States with a beyond visual line of sight authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration. “We’ve gone from a state that’s known for farming, agriculture and oil to a state that’s known for enabling and opening the door for commercial UAS operations,” he continued.

Nick Flom, execuitive director of Vantis, center, chats with his team at the Grand Farm Field Day on Thursday, June 10, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
Nick Flom, execuitive director of Vantis, center, chats with his team at the Grand Farm Field Day on Thursday, June 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

Commercial usage of Vantis in McKenzie County and Williams County is expected to begin later this summer, Flom said, pending final approvals from the FAA.

“Right now we’re going through developmental testing and operational testing so we can get to commercialization,” Flom said. “We’re going through the validation, making sure everything is working as advertised, and once we have the appropriate approvals we’ll be able to start doing commercial operations.”

Once approvals are in place, Vantis will be able to open their beyond visual line of sight network to multiple users. Beyond visual line of sight drone flights are considered a “holy grail” because they remove cumbersome labor and monetary burdens which can make standard drone flights unfeasible on a commercial scale.

Red River Valley deployment in the works

With the new funding coming available July 1, Flom said work will move quickly to ensure drones reach their full potential in eastern North Dakota.

A large component of that will be augmenting existing infrastructure. “Some of it is super simple,” he said. “We’re trying to leverage existing infrastructure as much as possible.”

A portion of that includes installing devices on existing state-owned radio towers. New construction is expected to entail radar platforms and pedestals.

Overall though, Vantis’ network won’t require large-scale construction, Flom explained. “We’re not building structures or buildings, we’re just deploying systems out in the field,” he said.

Flying high

Interested industries span both public and private entities, Flom said.

“This expansion will allow Xcel Energy to inspect their transmission lines, the North Dakota Department of Transportation to innovate I-29, and farmers in the Red River Valley to increase their yields,” he said.

A panel discussion which followed the initial announcement provided further details of the commercial benefits of Vantis’ network. Industry leaders from aerospace development firms credited North Dakota with providing a hospitable environment for furthering the technology, both physically and financially.

Todd Donovan, Thales USA’s vice president of aerospace mobility solutions for the Americas, said North Dakota’s funding is to thank for “dozens and dozens of (unmanned aircraft systems) use cases.”

“We’re really happy to be up here because North Dakota is taking a really pragmatic and practical approach to it,” Donovan said. “The real benefit here is that the Legislature has had the foresight to provide the funding, prime the pump and get this started.”

Tommy Kenville, the CEO of Grand Forks-based iSight Drone Services, said Vantis’ radar is “game changing for us,” making agriculture-centered drone applications profitable and giving the state an edge. “We fly in 40 states and eight countries right now and my guys want to fly here,” he said. “This radar will allow us to do that.”

A drone from ISight Drone Services flies over the Grand Farm site in south Fargo on Thursday, June 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
A drone from ISight Drone Services flies over the Grand Farm site in south Fargo on Thursday, June 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum

Tom Nickell, the CEO of Mobile Recon Services, commented that North Dakota’s fast-growing drone environment put the state on the map. It’s why he moved the firm, founded in Lexington, Ky., to Grand Forks in 2020.

Now, Nickell said, Mobile Recon is manufacturing and servicing drones entirely in North Dakota for farming uses such as seeding and examining crops. The company produces several models of drones with a goal of building a drone which can carry up to 250 pounds.

Endless potential

The applications for unmanned aircraft systems go beyond obvious uses such as in the oil and gas industry, Flom said.

First responders such as the North Dakota Highway Patrol and ambulance services could benefit from drones, as would rural clinics and hospitals.

“The hospital might not have been the first person who you would have thought of, but they’re very interested in this type of technology,” Flom said.

Bill Panos, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, expects Vantis’ network will also be a focal point of the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion’s construction.

While mainstream drone uses like delivery services will also be possible, Flom is more intrigued with the yet-to-be-realized potential for unmanned aircraft systems.

“I’m more excited about the things that I haven’t even thought about yet that somebody much smarter than myself — and we’ve got a lot of smart people in North Dakota — is going to come up with,” he said.