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Bob Becklund Pilots State's UAS Technology
Post Date: Mar 03 2016

By The Bismarck Tribune
When the North Dakota Air National Guard’s F-16 fighter jets were growing old and in need of replacement, the organization made a choice — one that is taking North Dakota into the lead of the unmanned aerial systems industry.

Bob Becklund found himself at the head of that change.

As the United States had stopped buying fighter jets and the older jets handed down to guard units were becoming difficult to find, the air guard made strategic plans to look for new missions, according to Becklund.

“We were the best fighter unit in the U.S. … but still there weren’t aircraft,” he said.

That is when the MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 Global Hawk came down from the clouds.

“We thought here’s a new technology that will be relevant and required forever,” Becklund said, and the air guard started seeking them out as replacements for the aging F-16s.

In 2004, Becklund was wing commander, overseeing a base realignment and closure in 2005. He then helped pick crews for UAS training and the unit earned a good reputation for UAS operations.

This would lead Becklund to an invitation to serve on a UAS task force to the Pentagon. One year on the task force turned into three before he returned to North Dakota.

Around that same time, Federal Aviation Administration-mandated UAS test sites were being picked around the country. Becklund answered North Dakota’s ad for an executive director of a test site. When hired, his job was to do his best to make sure North Dakota was selected for a site.

When he succeeded, he became executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks, at the helm of UAS industry in the state. This time, he is leading research that will help make a technology mostly dominated by the military become commercially viable.

The next step

To help advance research and development, Becklund said he would like to create an environment for the larger unmanned aircraft flown at Northern Plains to fly without a chase plane as is required under FAA rules.

The test site is working closely with the FAA on this, and if successful, it would be the only place in the country to allow it, according to Becklund, adding that Northern Plains already has FAA approval to fly UAS anywhere in the state and at night.

Becklund said the chase plane plan is aggressive but necessary for technological advancement and he thinks North Dakota has the right tools to make it work. Because of the Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota has access to high-end radar that can spot any aircraft flying in the area. That technology would keep UAS flights without a chase plane safe. In addition, Grand Forks is the only place in the U.S. where the Predator, Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper are flying together.Advertisement (1 of 1): 0:13Flying with a chase plane is cost prohibitive and the only way to make UAS commercially viable is to move beyond line-of-sight flights, according to Becklund, who said allowing in-field research to determine how this would be done safely would be beneficial to the industry and FAA.

Eventually, that research could transfer to the rest of the country, even where radar isn’t available. Becklund said this could be done through cooperative air space, where all aircraft flying would emit a signal rather than allowing some, such as gliders and aerial sprayers, to fly using visual flight rules.

While that may sound bold because it will cost money to institute, at the same time, it will greatly increase safety, Becklund said.

“There would never be mid-air collisions,” said Becklund, pointing out that secure and reliable communications links are the key and the research conducted at Northern Plains could help make that possible.

Becklund said the challenge now is there are no standards so companies don’t know to what specifications to build.

“Here in North Dakota, we can do research on those things,” he said.

2017 and beyond

The test site is set to expire in 2017, but Becklund said the North Dakota congressional delegation is working to extend it. With or without the federal extension, he is confident testing will continue as North Dakota has long invested in UAS technology and research — about $30 million to date.

“I think North Dakota needs to continue its investment; we’re out in front of it all. We need to stay in front of it and look to the future,” said Becklund, who describes the UAS expertise that has been developed in the state as “incredible” and will give North Dakota a seat at the table in deciding how to regulate the industry.

“It’s really exciting to be part of the new age of aviation,” said the former fighter pilot who has followed the industry from the cockpit to the remote control.

Becklund said, when he was flying, the planes were loud and highly visible. With UAS, many air guard missions are flown in secret on the other side of the world.

“But the cool factor is just off the charts,” said Becklund, adding that the air guard provides lots of opportunity and training, pays for college and can land airmen a full-time job upon graduation.

“Think where this could go,” said Becklund, pointing out that one day there may be a cheaper replacement for satellites. “That’s kind of fun stuff. I can’t think of where all it might go. I just know it’s a good thing.”

“I think North Dakota needs to continue its investment; we’re out in front of it all. We need to stay in front of it and look to the future.” — Bob Becklund

Bob Becklund Pilots State's UAS Technology - The Bismarck Tribune
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