When I was first invited to North Dakota, the plan was for me to visit the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Test Site in Grand Forks, but it was about 80 miles away from Fargo, and the site's director was going to be out of town the week of my trip.

My first thought was questioning why North Dakota was selected as one of the six UAS test sites compared to San Diego, which is home to Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk and General Atomics' Predator unmanned vehicles. I had given a presentation at the San Diego Lindbergh Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in the spring of 2013 while they were collaborating to prepare a proposal for being selected as a test site and was surprised when San Diego was not selected.

I posed this question to my host, Paul Lucy, the first evening we met during my trip, and he supplied part of the answer. It turns out that the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks had a long history of training airline pilots starting in the late 1960s and more recently expanded into training pilots for unmanned vehicles.

In December 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration selected North Dakota to be one of the six test sites, officially known as the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. According to the website, the mission is:  "Collaborate with FAA and industry partners to develop equipment, systems, rules, and procedures to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the NAS without negatively impacting existing general or commercial aviation."

After I had written my other articles about North Dakota, I set up a phone interview with Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. He took over the position in 2016 after the founding executive director, Robert Becklund, was promoted to brigadier general and deputy adjunct general for North Dakota. However, Flom is not new to the center since he was Becklund's first hire when the site was established.

Flom provided me the rest of the answer as to why North Dakota was selected. He said, "When they were preparing for the selection process, the entire state went into what we called the "one voice" effort by the governor, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, and the Office of the Adjunct General of the National Guard, the University of North Dakota, and other organizations in the state. Over $20 million was committed to establishing the UAS Test Site because the FAA test site designation did not include any federal funding."

As a point of reference, he told me the whole population of North Dakota is about 775,000, and there are only three congressional representatives. The population of San Diego, Calif., where I live is nearly double at 1.4 million.

He explained that "the wide open space of North Dakota was a big consideration, and there is no restricted air space because of population density. The FAA also wanted to diversify the test sites to reflect extremes of temperatures, and North Dakota has some of the highest and lowest temperatures of the U.S."

The UAS Test Site website sums up the reasons why North Dakota was chosen as follows:

  • "Unequalled history, legacy and culture of UAS.
  • Immediate access to uncongested airspace statewide and custom tailored to support your research.
  • Diverse climate and open terrain.
  • Unified commitment from North Dakota and congressional leadership, local industry, and key business decision makers.
  • State grant program to match funds from industry-academia research.
  • Strong relationship with Grand Sky, a UAS business and aviation park at Grand Forks Air Force Base."

When I asked what are his responsibilities, he answered, "We have a couple of different missions to integrate unmanned vehicles into the national air space:  supporting industry as rules are being developed, providing the test environment for application-based processes in agriculture, building inspection, insurance claims, etc., and as an economic driver for agriculture and energy. We look at unmanned vehicles as an opportunity to diversify the state's economy. Grand Forks has an Air Force base that has underutilized space, and there was 217 acres in Grand Forks available to establish a UAS business park. The first two tenants in the park are General Atomics and Northrop Grumman. General Atomics has a flight training facility for their sales of vehicles to foreign countries. They were training their pilots to fly in civilian air space. Northrop Grumman flies Global Hawks out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base to support some of their military customers. We help support these capabilities and have the goal of flying beyond the line of sight using the radar system at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Right now, when General Atomics is doing flight training, they have a chase airplane following along. When they can fly beyond line of sight, they won't have to have a chase aircraft follow along and will be able to execute their mission at a lower cost."

Nick Flom provided me with more detail about UND's history of pilot training. He said, "UND started with two airplanes in the 1960s, and then added a helicopter program in 1980. Now, they have 150 airplanes for commercial aviation pilot training. They were the first university to add unmanned vehicle pilot training in 2010, and are now filling the increasing demand for unmanned vehicle pilots. They are the first university to offer a four-year UAS Operations Bachelor of Science degree in the U. S. We have a close relationship with UND, and we can leverage a lot of their research. The president of UND established the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems on the campus. The top leaders understand the importance of unmanned aircraft."

Flom explained: "UND offers specialized training and curriculum development for UAS crew training and certification that includes human factors, safety management systems. It has an indoor UAS flight laboratory, a Predator Reaper Integrated Networked Computer Environment (PRINCE) simulator, a Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS) simulator, as well as a UAS Scan Eagle aircraft and simulators."

From the University of North Dakota Aerospace home page, I learned that UND specializes in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) research, education and training for private industry, government, UAS researchers and UND graduates. The UAS research collaboration includes:

  • "UND Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research (IUAR)
  • John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences
    • Aviation, Atmospheric Sciences, Computer Sciences, Space Studies, Earth Systems Science & Policy
  • UND Aerospace Foundation
  • Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NP UAS TS)
  • UND School of Engineering
    • Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering Lab
    • Robotics and Intelligence Systems Lab
  • UND Department of Psychology
    • Northern Plains Center for Behavioral Research"

From all of this information, I could see that it was entirely appropriate for the UAS Test Site to be established in North Dakota near the University of North Dakota.

I asked Flom about funding for the UAS Test Site, and he responded, "The state of North Dakota has appropriated dollars to support the test center. We also contract with government agencies such as NASA and the FAA as well as private companies to do services for which we are paid."   

Before ending our discussion, I asked Flom what were the future plans. He answered, "It depends on the needs of industry. The ability to fly aircraft beyond line of sight is very important, along with the ability to safely perform operations over populated cities. Right now, it is one pilot per aircraft, but it may be possible to have one pilot flying more than one unmanned vehicle."

In retrospect, I realize that San Diego County would not have been a good choice for a FAA test site as we have too much restricted air space due to three military airports, San Diego's Lindberg Field international airport, several small airports spread throughout the county, and the Tijuana, Mexico international airport right across the border. In addition, the population of San Diego County is 3.3 million, and there is only a small variation in temperature from winter to summer. There is no doubt in my mind now that North Dakota was a good choice for being selected as one of the six designated test sites.