Rising above the autonomous world

President Kennedy: New institute aims to make UND a global leader in ‘unmanned’ research

Mark Kennedy

UND President Mark Kennedy speaks at the 11th Annual UAS Summit and Expo, held at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks on Tuesday (Aug. 22). Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

One of UND’s five strategic Grand Challenges is to drive world-changing developments in unmanned, or autonomous, systems.

With the world’s best aviation school in place, UND already is meeting that goal when it comes to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), with a litany of pioneering firsts in that sector. But the University has even bigger plans for its place in the future of autonomous systems – in the air and everywhere else.

“Yes, we’re focused on aviation right now,” UND President Mark Kennedy said, “but the same skill sets and the same technologies that drive unmanned aircraft also drive it under the oceans and across the land.”

Kennedy made his remarks before some of the most influential movers and shakers in the autonomous industry on Tuesday at the 11th Annual UAS Summit in Grand Forks. There he laid out specifics about UND’s new Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS, pronounced “Rise”), a highly collaborative initiative with the potential to further diversify North Dakota’s economy.

Kennedy said RIAS was created to take UND to the next level to become a global leader in unmanned and autonomous research application and policy development.

“Our overall goals are to create new autonomous systems, through multi-disciplinary research; to drive the development of a vibrant, diverse and sustainable economy right here in Grand Forks – right here in North Dakota; and serve as a global forum to develop policies for autonomous systems that are consistent with our legal and ethical standards.”

Prime ecosystem

He prefaced his remarks by describing the rich research environment for unmanned vehicles that already exists at and around UND.

“We’ve got manned flight instruction, UAS flight instruction, UAS engineering instruction, interdisciplinary research across a whole range of fields, a Center for Innovation, the UAS Test Site (one of only seven in the nation), the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the UAS business Park with Grand Sky,” Kennedy said. “All of this creates a robust, and unparalleled-in-the-world, area for unmanned and autonomous systems.

“This is the No. 1 ecosystem in my mind to diversify this state beyond oil and soil.”

Kennedy explained that RIAS is not just about UND for UND, as it will be important to tap into the collaborative energies of many partners, including North Dakota State University in Fargo.

“It’s UND plus NDSU plus, plus and plus,” Kennedy said of RIAS.

More research, more jobs

RIAS got off the ground, in earnest, on April 25, when an interdisciplinary group of 37 UND researchers got together and focused on two questions: “What capabilities do we have?” and “What opportunities do we have?”

Later, in June, 10 NDSU faculty members joined 45 UND researchers in the discussion, and the same questions were posed from a University System standpoint. Next, in November, a nationwide group of unmanned and autonomous business leaders will convene in Grand Forks to offer their perspectives.

RIAS, which will be guided by corporate and public advisory panels, is subdivided into five broad areas of emphasis, each with their own designated “captain.” They are (1) autonomous platforms, (2) applications, (3) the data supply chain, (4) cybersecurity, and (5) policy development.

“All of this will help guide us on how we as the research driver of this region can have more people finding their way here to the (UAS) Test Center, more people finding their way to Grand Sky and more people creating companies here,” Kennedy said.

That’s classified

Funding for the initiative also looks to be multifaceted with interest from the private sector, State of North Dakota and federal sources such as the National Science Foundation, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Defense, NASA, Department of Homeland Security, USDA and others.

Furthermore, Kennedy says, UND and its RIAS partners need to be looking for collections of other universities around the country that they can work with collaboratively to increase the success of securing external research money.

Another important aspect of RIAS will be its participation in classified research projects, something that other research universities do not always pursue. Kennedy would like to see professors and researchers from other institutions come to UND to conduct such research. UND and RIAS partners also would proactively pursue their own select classified research opportunities.

“We would be relatively unique in the region for doing that and I think it opens up a lot more avenues for impactful research,” he said.

Kennedy left his audience with the strong message that UND’s RIAS initiative ultimately means more jobs for the region, but to do it, partners must be willing to invest in the future.

He said, “There is nothing that would more profoundly diversify this state and really turn it into a high-tech economy.”

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