Twenty years after launching a company on optimism and confidence, Nomad Global Communication Systems has become a major player in the mobile communications industry. Yet they’ve managed to stay rooted in their Flathead Valley home, even while sending their technology to the far reaches of the globe.
Fire crews briefed at 5 a.m., handing out paper updates to everyone on the crew. Each update required a team to go out and map the fire’s current position on paper, drive that paper data back to town, build a new map on the computer, then go to a copy shop and make hundreds of copies, returning to the fire camp before the briefing. Will understood computers and technology from his work study job at Willamette University, where he was a lab assistant for the student computer labs, and he was blown away by how hamstrung the firefighting operations were due to their remote location.
“Why can’t you do all that work right here?” Will remembers thinking, figuring that if the technology existed in town, there had to be a way to get it to the camp.
He sat on that question for a couple of years, unsure how exactly to tackle it. Then in 2002, while he and his brother, Seth, and their friends Shane Ackerly and Clay Binford were tossing around ideas for businesses, the backcountry communications idea came up again. They did some research and learned that, because fire camps had to factor in their ability to access reliable communications, they often favored proximity to town, resulting in longer, more dangerous commutes from the camps to the fire lines. Solving the communication problem could also make firefighting safer.
“The idea was great. But how did four guys who lacked engineering, business, or computer science degrees find the confidence to put this largely theoretical solution into action?”
The idea was great. But how did four guys who lacked engineering, business, or computer science degrees find the confidence to put this largely theoretical solution into action?
“Did you say confidence or competence?” Will, now the CEO of Nomad Global Communication Solutions, laughs. “We understood how computer systems worked and how to get a good internet connection. Doing it remotely, that really hadn’t been done before. But all four of us had this feeling of, ‘Why not give it a shot? We’ve never done it before, but it probably could be done, and if somebody can do it, why can’t we do it?’ The confidence was more born from a lack of fear of failure than established competence.”
They bought a red race trailer in Idaho, some countertops from Home Depot and computers from Staples. They found a satellite internet company that could provide service and went to Salt Lake City for training, then offered their services to the U.S. Forest Service.
Will describes the first iteration of the company as “low-tech high-tech” compared to what they offer today, but says it was a game-changer for backcountry communications in the early 2000s.
“They’d never had anything like it before,” he says. “It ended up being quite the hit. All of a sudden, these incident management organizations were like, ‘Whoa. We can actually be way more effective if we do this.’”
Fast forward twenty years and Nomad is both completely different and exactly the same. Instead of shopping around for used trailers, they build their mobile communications vehicles—a catchall term that encompasses everything from rigs small enough to be transported inside a C-130 cargo plane to a 53-foot-long trailer—nearly from scratch just outside Columbia Falls. (They don’t make their own chassis cabs. At least not yet.) In a world where it often feels like everything is made somewhere else by a faceless someone else, it’s astounding to take in the sheer breadth of in-house technological innovation and manufacturing happening in a series of unassuming tan metal buildings on Highway 2 just south of Columbia Falls. Even within the mobile communications industry, Nomad occupies a unique sweet spot.
“ Nomad’s mission is still to deliver the technology their customers need, making sure it works where their customers do, which could now be anywhere from a baking hot desert to a minus-40-degree oilfield
Jim Bullington, a welder and fabricator, bends a recently-machined vehicle part to the correct angle on a computer-controlled press brake.
That’s the part that remains the same: Nomad’s mission is still to deliver the technology their customers need, making sure it works where their customers do, which could now be anywhere from a baking hot desert to a minus-40-degree oilfield in winter.
To take a rig from concept to completion, the customer’s vision first goes to a team of mechanical, electrical, and information technology engineers who come up with a design based on the project’s needs and limitations. Considerations for the vehicle itself—clearance, four-wheel drive, width and height, to name a few—are just as important as the technology inside. If the client can’t reach their destination, all the fancy equipment in the world won’t do them any good. And there’s lots of fancy equipment.
“Do you want a mobile command center, a mobile dispatch center? Do you need secured or unsecured networks, do you need satellite, do you need cellular, or a combination of all three for redundancy?” says Jerritt Turner, the information technology engineering manager, explaining just a few of the many technical considerations that go into each vehicle.
Once the customer and the engineers agree on the specs, the physical work begins. The fabrication building now runs as much on technology as manpower, though that wasn’t always the case.
“When I first came to Nomad, we didn’t have anything,” Shigo says, remembering his early days 11 years ago when the company could make some pieces with “old-school shears” but outsourced most of their parts manufacturing, which created huge time delays, especially if a part needed tweaking.
Now two huge computer-operated laser cutters fill the front of the fabrication building. They’re fast and intricate and—most importantly—in-house. An engineer can design a part and hand the plan off to a technician to cut with the laser. If it’s not quite right, they can adjust it in a matter of minutes instead of days.
Just beyond the lasers, one technician bends metal vehicle parts to the correct angle with a computerized brake while another machines more intricate parts on a computerized mill, which is even programmed to switch bits—from grinding to drilling, for example—automatically as it progresses through the directions the technician programmed for it. And then there’s the welding robot.
Melissa Olson, one of Nomad’s experienced welders and the robot automation operator, says that the robot offers unique time-saving advantages in addition to its welding abilities.
“What’s really cool about it, there are places that the robot can’t reach, and I can literally weld right next to it,” she explains. “It’s not like welding next to a person where I have to be concerned about slag and which direction and whether I blind them or not. He doesn’t mind any of it. I can set him to weld on one part and I can weld on another, which doubles our efficiency on those parts.”
Shigo explains that, with the right attachments, the robot could be programmed to do anything from heavy manufacturing to delicate packaging. He’s even seen a video where their exact robot had been programmed to make espressos in a Japanese department store. More robots are in the company’s future, though probably not as coffee makers.
Once the parts are assembled to create the vehicle’s basic metal structure on the chassis, the guts go in. Wires, wires, and more wires. Wires that direct a vehicle’s self-leveling capabilities and boot up computers. Wires to extend a 40-foot mast when a Nomad-built T-Mobile truck pulls up in the wake of a tornado so the vehicle can broadcast a cellular signal across the disaster area.
Wires to make sure that when the Air Force is testing the F-35 stealth jet, their Nomad-built mobile engineering center can pull in the terabytes of information the plane broadcasts on its flight, allowing engineers to analyze the data in real time and quickly make alterations. Prior to the development of these incredibly high-tech vehicles, which are engineered to prevent electromagnetic interference (aka spying), the plane would land after a test flight and the data would be physically taken off the plane in hard drives. Those would be securely sent to a military engineering center, analyzed, the programming tweaked, and then the hard drives would make the return journey before the next flight. Changes that might take two weeks now take an hour. Coming advancements in li-fi, light-based data transmission, could cut the time down to a refueling stop.
“ There’s no doubt that success favors those who are willing to put in the work, as well as those who are unafraid to try.”
Electrician Don Hunt works on the electrical assembly of a tactical command vehicle.
Electrician Mike Freiheit studies the wiring plans for a vehicle.
The incredible connectivity and capability Nomad provides used to require a high level of technical support, which was fine when Will, Seth, Shane and Clay were the technicians repositioning the satellite dish on the first wildland fire trailer, but became less ideal as the world adopted an “there’s an app for that” mindset. So Nomad’s computer programmers built software that allows all the vehicle’s technology to be controlled from a touchscreen and deployed quickly. Many of their vehicles are designed for disaster response or public safety, so every minute spent waiting on equipment can be critical time lost. Their goal—which they’ve already achieved on some of their builds—is to have all a vehicle’s capabilities, from slideouts to computer systems, booted up and functional within 60 seconds of arrival.
Once upon a time, a car with an internal combustion engine was revolutionary technology. Today, Nomad is looking towards a battery-powered future. When they couldn’t find a battery on the market that would meet the high power needs of their vehicles, one of the electrical engineers said, “I think we can build one.” So they outfitted a dedicated battery room and did just that, testing and redesigning until they arrived at a battery that will produce 10,000 watts for 8 hours, enough energy to power the average American home for almost 3 days. Or a supercomputer in an air-conditioned vehicle on an aircraft test range in the desert.
More than twenty years ago, four guys in the Flathead saw a problem with backcountry communications and figured out the technology that would enable them to solve it. Since then, Nomad has grown both steadily and explosively: they’ve tripled their workforce since 2019 and expect to add another 60 or more employees by the end of this year. They’ve opened a facility in Huntsville, Alabama focused on communications solutions for the military, including mobile containers for the high seas, and are also opening a manufacturing facility in Libby.
There’s no doubt that success favors those who are willing to put in the work, as well as those who are unafraid to try. Those two qualities pretty much sum up Nomad GCS, a company that remains rooted in the mindset that started it all:
“It probably can be done, and if somebody can do it, why not us?”
The electrical cabinet of a partially-finished Nomad trailer.
Melissa Olson, a welder and robot automation operator.
The end result of thousands of hours of planning, design, fabrication, and assembly.
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