A simulated drone flight at GrandSky could be the first step toward using drones in civilian airspace – Grand Forks Herald

A simulated drone flight at GrandSky could be the first step toward using drones in civilian airspace – Grand Forks Herald
A simulated drone flight at GrandSky could be the first step toward using drones in civilian airspace – Grand Forks Herald

EMERADO, N.D. — In a conference room at GrandSky Airfield on Thursday, a U.S. senator, an Air Force colonel, county officials and about a dozen drone industry executives sat in front of a bank of television monitors watching a high-tech fantasy game.

On the monitors, air traffic control software from Simulyze navigated several simulated drones from the launch at Grand Forks Air Force Base and in the surrounding area.

One was designed to deliver an imaginary payload to Cavalier Space Force Station, located about 70 miles northwest of Grand Forks AFB. Another flew in a serpentine pattern over a field of farmland to simulate a farmer inspecting his crops.

(Real) NASA engineers fed the air traffic control software with data about fictitious military aircraft flying through the drones’ flight paths. One time, a drone flew over a forest fire in Park River, North Dakota—there was no such forest fire—and triggered an alert when the drone entered fire department airspace.

The simulation is a first step in the ULTRA project, funded by the Ministry of Defense, to fly unmanned aircraft in civil airspace.

The hope is that next year a real drone with real cargo will fly missions between Grand Forks AFB and Cavalier Station.

“We have all the radars, all the systems and all the permits to do this,” said Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D. “I don’t think there’s any other place in the country where this is possible.”

Currently, there is little infrastructure in the United States for the use of drones alongside manned aircraft.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prohibit drone operators from flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) without special permission.

Companies that receive approval for BVLOS flights can generally limit themselves to isolated test environments without other aircraft.

Some developers like Simulyze have developed software to let drones fly in the same airspace as manned aircraft, but “that’s not as widespread,” says Trevor Woods, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. “It’s still in development.”

The goal of the ULTRA project is to use the airspace around Grand Forks as a laboratory for unmanned air traffic management, allowing unmanned and manned aircraft to fly side by side.

Last month, the Department of Defense issued a work order to Project ULTRA to begin simulating unmanned cargo flights between military facilities, at a cost of $2.5 million in defense spending.

To enable the flight between Grand Forks and Cavalier, another order is expected to be placed in the fall.

Hoeven, the leading proponent of Project ULTRA in the Senate, said Grand Forks is an ideal test site because it has infrastructure like North Dakota’s Vantis BVLOS system and because air traffic controllers already juggle student, military and commercial aircraft in the same airspace.

“The Grand Forks airport is one of the 25 busiest airports in the country because so many students fly here,” Hoeven said. “We have large drones here that fly beyond visual line of sight. It’s a microcosm of the national airspace.”

In addition to cargo operations, Project ULTRA will also address issues such as the lack of effective defense systems for the military’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which Air Force General Kenneth Wilsbach repeatedly raised during his visit to Grand Forks last week.

Hoeven said he expects Project ULTRA to boost the region’s already growing UAS economy. Tom Swoyer, president of GrandSky, said the aviation park is working with 20 to 30 unmanned aircraft manufacturers to supply the cargo drone that will ultimately be used in the real-world flight from Grand Forks to Cavalier.

“This system will work and will be expanded across the country,” Hoeven said. “Aviation companies, entrepreneurs, technology companies, UAS – they will want to come here and be part of it because we are here from the beginning.”

Joshua Irvine

Joshua Irvine covers K-12 and higher education and the Grand Forks County Commission for the Grand Forks Herald. He joined the Herald in October 2023.

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