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Unveiling UAS’ future

Vantis poised to put ND in lead

The program director for North Dakota’s statewide unmanned aircraft system (UAS) network illuminated an early-morning Minot audience Wednesday on the the progress of the program’s technology.

Speaking at Minot Area Chamber EDC’s edition of Eggs and Issues, Vantis program director James Cieplak shared some background on the program and the long-term vision Minot will be a part of going forward.

Cieplak, a 30-year vet of the aviation and drone industry, spoke about the plan to implement UAS technology in North Dakota and beyond.

“The acronym unmanned aircraft systems is actually a misnomer. It takes more men and women to fly an unmanned aircraft now per FAA regulations and rules than it does a manned aircraft,” Cieplak said.

Vantis will make drone flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) possible across the state. In partnership with tech company Thales as the system integrator, the Vantis network consists of an array of radio towers and radar dishes, allowing operators to pilot their drones from afar and detect manned aircraft to safely navigate the skies. The intention behind the creation of the network is to build a “road in the sky” for every conceivable industry or purpose that UAS services could be applied to — from logistics and deliveries, surveying and maintaining infrastructure to precision agriculture.

After some major boosting by Gov. Doug Burgum in 2018, state lawmakers approved funding of $48 million dollars to build the network and attract companies and firms to North Dakota to establish the state as a hub of UAS research, development and commercialization.

“This is about commerce, about economic development, not just putting up infrastructure,” Cieplak said.

The ultimate goal is for North Dakota to lead the way in industry standards while developing technology that is scalable beyond the state. As Cieplak explained it, once the Vantis network expands to neighboring states, it functionally will operate like a toll road, with 3% of revenue generated from service fees to be put back into the state’s general fund.

“We are looking at additional revenue sources from Vantis. One is the ability to put this aviation infrastructure not just here in North Dakota,” Cieplak said. “All of that infrastructure can then be monitored from here, and we can actually have a fee for service for replicating this and putting it in other states.”

The new Mission and Network Operations Center in Grand Forks had its grand opening in June, joining other sites in Fargo, Williston and Watford City. The full Vantis network will utilize the state’s fiber optic infrastructure to connect all of the operation centers, with Bismarck and Minot set to get their own centers in the future.

Minot Area Chamber EDC has dipped its toes into the drone industry before with SkySkopes, Inc., but the opportunities the Vantis system brings to the community go beyond simply the economic and could be a chance for Minot and North Dakota to be on the ground floor of building the infrastructure that every state will utilize to maintain order in the sky, proponents say.

Proponents of UAS technology believe there could be many other possible applications for it, and it isn’t limited to what can be in the air. Everything from waste collection, public transit and even snow removal could benefit from the system and network that Vantis is building, bringing even communities like Minot closer to what Cieplak called “grand autonomy.”

“Looking beyond just unmanned aircraft systems, but looking at the automated tractors in the farming industry, looking at snowplows we’re working on with DOT. We’re always expanding our vision,” Cieplak said.

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