(Bismarck, ND) -- After another round of severe weather brought blizzard conditions, heavy snow and ice to western North Dakota this past weekend, the state has enlisted unmanned aircraft systems technologies to help restore services to residents and assist recovery efforts.
Governor Doug Burgum announced Wednesday in a joint release with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site that the state mobilized UAS to survey rural areas, locating and assessing damage to utility infrastructure, and to help prioritize resources for repairs and recovery.
The remote-pilot-operated drones, flown by ISight Drone Services and the NPUASTS, are able to operate beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights as part of the state’s creation and implementation of Vantis, North Dakota’s UAS network. The UAS flights have been supported and monitored through Federal Aviation Administration regulations and officials.
“North Dakotans are known for their innovation and resilience,” Burgum said. “In difficult times like this, our citizens and neighbors come together to find new solutions to challenging problems. We’re leveraging the investment the state has made in this UAS infrastructure to help workers identify damage and repair ground-based infrastructure. Utilizing our strength in aviation will help citizens and communities on the ground.”
The drones are assisting members of the North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives, complementing efforts with manned aircraft utilized by Montana-Dakota Utilities. As crews work around the clock to restore power, it’s estimated that some western and northwest parts of the state will not regain service for days or weeks. After coordinating with the FAA, flights began Tuesday.
“This is one of the primary applications we envisioned in creating this UAS network,” said Trevor Woods, NPUASTS executive director. “We hope this nimble response can help the state’s residents in getting life-saving power restored, and benefit areas and businesses affected by the natural disaster. For such a massive undertaking in fixing lines and infrastructure, we know that locating damage in difficult-to-travel-to areas saves time and assets that can’t afford to be wasted.”
The NPUASTS, one of seven FAA test sites, has been assisting UAS testing for nearly a decade, and has been a leading research facility in the United States. It has been building out Vantis, the state’s BVLOS network that it administers, since the initial state investment in 2019. Vantis’ primary test sites in the Williston and Watford City areas are in close proximity to the regions most heavily affected by the storms.
“We’re proud to be part of a team that is helping North Dakotans in a significant and tangible way,” said ISight CEO Tommy Kenville. “These flights highlight the real-world applications for drones and how critical they will be for services going forward.”
ISight and NPUASTS have also offered to help livestock producers to assess fence lines, do cattle counts and provide imagery of their property in the wake of storm damage. The spring blizzards come at calving season for many ranchers, meaning an added economic vulnerability for these businesses.