Drones (copy)

Joel Peterson inspects a drone during the Bakken Oil Product and Service Show in this file photo.

Under the original game plan for beyond visual line of sight drones, North Dakota was going to roll out its UAS corridor along U.S. Highway 2, tagging the Bakken in with that.

However, with the legislature approving $28 million for beyond visual line of sight drones, the state is now looking at the Bakken as being one of the first pieces, Gov. Doug Burgum and Lt. Governor Brent Sanford told the Williston Herald last week.

Burgum and Sanford were in Watford City for the Main Street initiative, to talk about challenges and opportunities facing the city.

Sanford, in addition to being lieutenant governor, leads the North Dakota Trade Office and chairs the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Authority.

Sanford said he expects the full rollout of the state’s BVLOS network of radar and ground control stations to take about two years. The BVLOS network is estimated to cost $28 million, while an additional $3 million will help upgrade infrastructure at Grand Sky’s drone park and $2 million will support the Northern Plains UAS team. That brings North Dakota's total investment for advancing UAS to $77 million so far.

Meanwhile, Sanford said McKenzie County is already testing an idea using drones to map gravel roads after hard rains, to better determine which should be shut down and which can remain open.

McKenzie County divides its roads into six districts. If there’s a heavy rain in one of the districts, roads in that district may be shut down temporarily, protecting the road base from damage by heavy vehicles.

Rain can be spotty, however, and that has sometimes meant roads that are dry enough to travel also get shut down.

“We have examples of people sending us pictures of a dry road, and saying we are trying to get to a well site,” Sanford said. “The road is closed, but we are sending you a picture of a dry road.”

Drones could help make the county's system more precise, Sanford said, and provide a feasible way to leave more roads open after a heavy rain.

“When industry can move faster, that means we have more production, which means more tax revenue for counties, cities, school districts and the state,” Sanford said.

That’s just one of many potential applications in the Bakken for the energy sector. Sanford and Burgum envision drones that can check pipelines for leaks, and conduct routine inspections for utility lines.

Drones won’t just be for the energy sector, however. Agriculture, too, is poised to benefit from beyond visual line of sight drone flights.

"Everyone is going to have better, real-time data,” Sanford said. “That will help on crops, to ensure dollars are spent per acre only on chemicals that are actually needed.”

Burgum, meanwhile, pointed out that being among the first states in the nation to have a fully working grid for beyond visual line of sight UAS positions North Dakota to become a kind of Silicon Valley for the drone industry. North Dakota was also selected as one of 10 test sites last year by the Federal Aviation Administration's UAS Integration Pilot Program.

“We will have companies moving here because it’s the only place they can do this kind of testing in the United States,” Burgum said.

Burgum mentioned as an example a Montana-based firm that is developing an application for precision mapping of wildfires. A drone that is BVLOS enabled could get into a wildfire more quickly and more safely than present methods allow, and create a precise map to guide emergency efforts.

“They are building an application that will be super valuable for fighting wildifires, but they cannot test it in Montana,” Burgum said. 

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