Seventy-seven years ago, the US began a massive operation to use its-then state-of-the-art aircraft to deny its enemies of oil in Ploiești, Romania. In North Dakota, better than perhaps anywhere else in the US, we currently stand on the brink of the ability to use our-now state-of-the-art aircraft technologies in ways where a byproduct of which will partially deny foreign powers our dependence on their oil.

These, namely, are unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technologies, and they do more than simply offer token compensation for the difficulties endured by North Dakotans during the pandemic and recent oil price crash. They are, in many ways, a strong answer to how North Dakota can continue to produce oil in its traditionally innovative ways.

North Dakota's probably most rich UAS ecosystem in the country has culminated into a huge success coming out of Grand Forks’ Northern Plains UAS Test Site, which operates under an authority chaired by Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, a man steeped in oil. This initiative is called the “Statewide Network,” abbreviated to “SWN,” and is a patchwork of radar systems first in line to be approved by the FAA for the use of drones to fly beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS). Readers should identify BVLOS with the goal everyone in the UAS industry is striving toward, though as of right now, such missions at scale are illegal due to safety considerations of UAS potentially flying near manned aircraft.

These radar systems that three systems integration companies will be installing first in Watford City in the coming few months will be able to satisfy the FAA’s safety concerns and deconflict UAS with general aviation pilots.

Much of this project traces its lineage to the last biennium and the North Dakota Legislature’s House Bill 1018. More than $30 million was allocated to the initiative, which should prove an admirable investment by the state as other states may look to extend the North Dakota network to their state. In order to fly on the network, pilots must agree to pay 3% of the gross income of BVLOS missions flown to the North Dakota State Treasurer on a quarterly basis. This is one way UAS are going to stimulate the North Dakota economy in ways other states cannot match.

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The SWN will serve as a force multiplier for the ways that UAS are already bringing value to the Bakken, and will also open new missions to the operators in the oilfields. Right now, UAS flying Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) sensors in the Bakken can help show the condition of flare stacks and if there are fugitive emissions from pumps, pipelines, or other assets. These aircraft could be flown more efficiently if they didn’t need to land so frequently and could fly, rather than be driven to, other oil asset locations.

LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging sensors, are also game changers in the Bakken when flown from UAS in order to give the centimeter-level accuracy of the topography around oil assets. The network will pave the way for larger drones to fly LiDAR systems over pipelines for greater distances, keeping oil companies in compliance and reducing their needs for capital expenditures on maintenance.

In the event of a spill, the rapid deployment of long-range UAS flying BVLOS will be able to get real-time situational awareness of the affected area faster than other methods. This type of disaster response scenario is impossible without such a network of radars. Routine inspections of pipelines are mandated under US code and federal regulations, which, regarding oil companies, says, “Each operator shall, at intervals not exceeding 3 weeks, but at least 26 times each calendar year, inspect the surface conditions on or adjacent to each pipeline right-of-way.”

The AUVSI economic impact study of 2013 claimed that North Dakota UAS would generate $83 million in economic stimulation, create $400,000 in tax revenue, and create 105 jobs by 2025.

The state of North Dakota’ legislature alone has already eclipsed the AUVSI’s projections of economic impact with five years to go, and the numerous private firms in North Dakota have a good chance of, in aggregate, eclipsing the $83 million number themselves in the coming half decade. With a SWN about to go operational, the AUVSI’s economic numbers will continue to pale. North Dakota UAS will be measured in the hundreds of millions by 2025.

The immense value of the SWN being orchestrated by the Northern Plains UAS Test Site is palpable. The leadership at the test site, and preliminary results of the program, are exemplary-enough to the point where legislators in North Dakota should already be thinking about another allocation for the SWN at the upcoming legislative session. This technology is solidifying North Dakota’s place at the vanguard of the drone megatrend, while proving a true boon to North Dakota’s largest economic pillar: energy.

To the personnel at the oil companies in the Bakken, it is advisable for you to look into the ways UAS would be able to save your organization on costs, while providing new data value and improving safety factors.

One thing that the North Dakota UAS environment has shown is that drones save money. Their cost savings potential with the SWN is only going to increase, warranting further consideration of their use. In tough times, with prices down and a global pandemic, it would make sense to fasten further on ways to ease the economic burden. For oil companies, drones are a great way to do that.

Matt Dunlevy is the president and CEO of SkySkopes, based in Grand Forks, N.D. The company has several offices in North Dakota, with a footprint also in Minnesota, Oregon, California and Texas.