Drones in North Dakota can now fly on dedicated spectrum, thanks to a partnership announced Wednesday between Northern Plains UAS Test Site and Access Spectrum.

We wrote about Access Spectrum and the use of wireless spectrum on Wednesday, just before the announcement was released by Northern Plains UAS Test Site director Bob Becklund and Access Spectrum Senior vice president John Vislosky.

It’s a huge win for many local companies in the drone industry, Becklund said, given that right now designated spectrum is a huge need.

“Everywhere in the U.S., the only frequency band that the FCC (Federal Communications Comission) let’s us fly on right now is the FCC Part 15 rules. It’s the same rules that kids walkie-talkies can talk on,” Becklund said. “They’re low power, and exist unregulated… It can be jammed, it can be spoofed, and you just accept those risks.”

This is how it is all across the United States right now, Becklund said. If you want to fly on a higher-altitude, higher power frequency, you have to contact whoever owns that frequency and request permission. Most of these frequencies are owned by private and government industries, he said.

Even if you do get that permission, you then have to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to use that frequency as well. The last thing the FAA wants is for a drone to fly on bad frequency, lose connection with the pilot, and then be flying without any command and control.

The need for designated spectrum

Ideally, this is a problem the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission should address, Becklund said.

“The problem is that there is no defined spectrum for unmanned aircraft to use,” Becklund said. If the FAA was to designate spectrum solely for UAS purposes, “it can be protected by the FAA, and guaranteed to be interference free,” he said.

Until then, they are forced to get creative. Companies like Access Spectrum are getting creative too.

Access Spectrum is a company that owns spectrum, categorized as the Upper 700 MHz A Block spectrum, all across the United States. It was formerly used for television analog broadcast signals, and is now licensed to the Federal Communications Commission for private use. Access Spectrum is acting as a licensee, and selling it to whoever is interested in large state-size chunks.

John Vislosky, the Senior Vice President of Access Spectrum, gave his sales pitch at North Dakota’s UAS Industry Day in late January 2016. So far he’s closed sales in Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Minnesota, California, and parts of Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Free spectrum in North Dakota

No one has claimed a stake in North Dakota yet. Vislosky approached Becklund with proposition to let them fly on the spectrum for free, until he gets a buyer.

“Now, here in North Dakota, a company can come here and with the stroke of a pen we can allow them to transmit command and control frequencies on licensed spectrum,” Becklund said. “It’s impossible to do that anywhere else.”

Not only can they use it for free, but the frequency is high-power, high-altitude, with 1,000 watts of radiated power, Becklund said.

They already have a customer. A company doing research with UND has been sitting for a year, unable to fly because the FCC didn’t approve the radio frequency they were using. (The company is not based in North Dakota).

However, the catch is that the frequency is only open to use until a buyer claims it, Becklund said.

“If somebody comes along and buys it, then we’ll have to vacate,” he said.

It’s unlikely the Northern Plains Test Site would purchase the frequency themselves, Becklund said, unless the state of North Dakota agreed that they wanted to own frequency across the state.

“If you got the right people and somebody bought it all up and then offered it – that’s a big business question. But it is intriguing,” Becklund said. “Here’s a frequency band owned by another company and it’s high power. Gee, why not.”

There are those who advocate for less licensed spectrum, positing that it is in the open spectrum where people can truly innovate (Wi-Fi, for instance, was created using unlicensed spectrum.)

However, in the world of UAS, the data being transmitted often requires encryption or high protection, Becklund said. Not to mention the FAA doesn’t like the idea of flying on open spectrum, either.

“There’s no way the FAA will let you fly on unlicensed spectrum,” Becklund said. “The only way to do this is to have communications that are secure and reliable and encrypted – can’t be jammed, can’t be spoofed. We need it to be bigger, better, faster, higher.”


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Marisa Jackels