Northern Plains UAS Test Site is Blazing Trails in North Dakota

Nicholas Flom is the Executive Director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Along with 6 other states, the State of North Dakota established this UAS test site in 2014 to collaborate with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “We collaborate with FAA and industry partners to develop equipment, systems, rules, and procedures to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the NAS without negatively impacting existing general or commercial aviation,” explained Flom.

Entrepreneurial Leadership

As the executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Flom is utilizing his entrepreneurial instinct to blaze a trail in the UAS industry. After graduating from the University of North Dakota, Flom had aspirations of becoming a pilot for a major airline. However, an opportunity presented itself in Grand Forks to create an air taxiing company that offered an affordable way for people to travel across North Dakota. “It is really expensive to charter an airplane for short trips across the state… We helped make it economical to travel across the state and worked closely with the FAA,” said Flom.

Although the air taxiing company faced hard times along with the economy in 2005 to 2007, Flom took the knowledge gained working with the FAA to propel him as the Executive Director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. “When I began learning all I could about UAS, Amazon was just selling books…. The world of UAS was based on government and military contracts then. The State of North Dakota realized the potential of a UAS Test Site and in 2014, it became a reality,” explained Flom.

Future of Flight

As one of the first hires at the Northern Plains UAS, Flom has continued his efforts to work with the FAA as he did with his air taxiing company. “On a daily basis, I collaborate with the FAA to help push them out of their comfort zone… we are trailblazing a path that doesn’t really have a path yet,” said Flom. As technology advances and possibilities of UAS become a reality, the laws and regulations must be able to address these advances.

Thinking of the future, Flom is excited that the North Plains UAS Test Site is bringing efficiency, autonomy, and excitement to industries that could be considered unsafe or unexciting. “We work with the private industry to help bring autonomy to jobs that are quite unsafe or boring… A power line inspector, for example, could be more efficient flying drones simultaneously to view multiple power lines instead of flying a helicopter at low altitudes observing one line at a time,” explained Flom. This example, among many, is used by Flom to illustrate that the paradigm for companies and industries is expanding through the use of UAS.

Along with the private sector, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site cooperates with the FAA in establishing protocols from a policy standpoint. “As possibilities for UAS increase, we want to be a part of the solution to make sure Amazon can deliver to your house and that a drone won’t interrupt someone putting on the 18th hole of a golf course,” said Flom. As an organization founded by the State of North Dakota, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site is important for the state as it continues the diversification of its commodities of oil, gas, and agriculture.

Learn more from Nicholas Flom and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site as he speaks at 1 Million Cups Fargo on Wednesday, May 16th, 2018 at 9:15 a.m. at The Stage in Island Park.

Brent McNeal