After years of preparatory work together, French aviation, defense, and communication giant Thales has been selected as a long-term systems integration partner for North Dakota’s beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone network, Vantis.
Founded in 2019 with an initial investment of $28 million – and receiving an additional $20 million boost earlier this year – much of the infrastructure and strategic preparation in the Vantis BVLOS network is largely complete in the western half of North Dakota. Managed by the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (NPUASTS), Vantis is designed to function as a radar, detection sensor, and radio system, feeding pilots information they need to operate safe and efficient BVLOS missions.
Once the system passes Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval, North Dakota officials say Vantis will make BVLOS flight a reality for any government administration, public organization, or business meeting state safety criteria.
Initial phases of preparation and infrastructure assembly relied on Collins Aerospace, L3Harris Technologies, and Thales USA as the principle private sector participants in Vantis. In being held over from that as a long-term partner, Thales will be responsible for installing additional communications and surveillance platforms across the state. Awaiting that, testing of the existing platform will continue in western North Dakota in coordination with the FAA, which has set standards and methods involved.
Concurrent to that, construction of Vantis infrastructure in eastern North Dakota is set to accelerate, particularly with the erection and equipping of radio towers to provide radar feeds vital to what officials call the first-ever BVLOS drone network in the US. Those assets will be supported by a Mission and Network Operations Center, which uses North Dakota’s fiber optic telecommunications network and other digital services via cloud-based platforms to ensure operational resilience.
The state has invested heavily in Vantis in the belief the asset will attract considerable business from companies and public agencies that will want to exploit BVLOS operation as soon as that’s available.
“North Dakota continues to be the nation’s proving ground for the testing, training and commercialization of [uncrewed] aircraft systems, and this partnership with Thales to build out the first-of-its-kind Vantis statewide network will help cement our state’s reputation as a UAS leader,” said North Dakota lieutenant governor Brent Sanford, who chairs NUPUASTS. “Our state’s nearly $50 million investment in this groundbreaking technology is attracting companies, jobs, and entrepreneurs and diversifying our economy for the benefit of all North Dakotans.”
Government agencies are expected to be initial Vantis users, with several large energy sector companies also showing early interest. Though Vantis will initially be open to smaller drones under 55 pounds, officials say it will be capable of serving larger craft down the line.
“BVLOS flights are the future of UAS,” said Trevor Woods, interim executive director of NPUASTS. “They are how we achieve repeatable, scalable, economically viable commercial UAS services. Vantis, through our partnership with Thales USA, is making that future a reality. We’re building the blueprint for commercial BVLOS flights across the country.”
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