LAS VEGAS — Vantis, North Dakota’s beyond visual line of sight unmanned aircraft systems network, has selected Thales as its long-term systems integration partner.

The announcement was made Monday, Oct. 11, at the National Business Aviation Association’s Business Aviation Convention and Exhibition in Las Vegas.

Vantis was created in 2019 via an initial investment from the North Dakota Legislature to roll out a beyond visual line of sight network for unmanned aircraft systems. The BVLOS technology has been described by experts as the “holy grail” of drone technology because it allows unmanned aircraft to be flown beyond the view of the operator on the ground, thus eliminating prohibitive labor and financial burdens.

The state funded the technology’s debut in western North Dakota, but a $20 million allocation from the state in 2021 called for Vantis to expand the network’s capabilities into eastern North Dakota’s Cass, Grand Forks and Traill counties for agricultural uses. Trevor Woods, the interim executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, noted Monday that Vantis is currently the only beyond visual line of sight drone network in the country.

Network testing is currently underway in western North Dakota, with the Federal Aviation Administration assisting in designing testing standards. In eastern North Dakota, Vantis is moving quickly to outfit existing infrastructure — such as state-owned radio towers with the necessary technology to deploy the radar network — executive director Nick Flom reported in June.

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Thales was chosen as the systems integration partner by a selection committee made up of the North Dakota Department of Commerce and Northern Plains UAS Test Site, which administers Vantis and is one of only seven FAA test sites in the nation.

Thales will phase in new communications and surveillance infrastructure across North Dakota. Supporting Thales’ infrastructure will be a Mission and Network Operations Center, which will utilize fiber optic telecommunications technology and Fargo-based Botlink’s cloud services.

Vantis program manager James Cieplak commented via news release that Thales was ultimately the best fit among contending systems integration partners. “We’re excited for the next phase of our partnership with Thales,” he stated. “They were chosen not only because of their outstanding technical performance and innovative approach to building this system, but because they provide the best long-term value to the state. Thales shares our vision for what a partnership of this magnitude could achieve, and for Vantis as the future of the UAS industry.”

Drones themselves have evolved faster than the infrastructure to support them, Woods remarked Monday. Currently, commercial drones can be flown roughly a half-mile away from their on-the-ground operator, but Vantis can change that, he continued. Without Vantis, he analogized, drones would be like cars without roads.

Woods said that government agencies would likely be the first users of the statewide Vantis network, though firms such as Xcel Energy and Burlington Northern Santa Fe have shown interest in using the network. While Vantis is currently intended for small drones under 55 pounds, Woods said the network will be targeting larger drones in the future.

Frank Matus, Thales’ director of air traffic control and digital aviation solutions, credited the state’s support of Vantis. “I think the state has done a really amazing job of evolving the system over time,” he said Monday.

“We’re highly supportive of the state’s approach and where things are going,” Matus added. “This model can and should be replicated across the United States and around the world.”