Partnerships on the ‘RIAS’

Meeting of corporate and public sector advisory boards unleashes ideas and opportunities for UAS collaboration

Jason Jensen

Jason Jensen, UND Political Science & Public Administration faculty member, talks about UAS and autonomous technology-related policy developments at the recent RIAS (Research Institute for Autonomous Systems) Advisory Board meeting in Robin Hall. Image courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

As Mark Askelson took the microphone before dozens of men and women filling UND’s Robin Hall conference room, he was transported.

“It feels a little bit like my wedding day,” said Askelson, interim executive director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS). “I told the audience the same thing that day – this is our day. We have an amazing group brought together – amazing expertise, amazing knowledge and amazing will to do great things.”

On Nov. 16, leaders from the corporate world, public sector and higher education – both UND and North Dakota State University (NDSU) – merged as RIAS advisory boards. They talked opportunities, challenges and applications of UAS and autonomous systems for not only the state, but the world, and how the three groups could work together to become global leaders in action.

This was the third major meeting of RIAS (pronounced “rise”), following an April gathering of interdisciplinary UND faculty experts to discuss opportunities and resources, and later a June collaborative summit with NDSU research leaders.

“The point of us coming together today is to focus on collaborations and partnerships,” said Packet Digital CEO Terri Zimmerman, head of the RIAS Corporate Advisory Board. “Collectively, we’ll make a mark and change this industry.”

“The work you’re doing is so profound … With a state our size, we have to integrate and collaborate,” North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott told the assembly. “You’re a part of history. The world will not be the same – we’ll make it a safer, better place.”

Mind-stretching questions

The day-long gathering of the RIAS corporate and public sector advisory boards began with a World Café, during which each table of attendees was given a mind-stretching question to debate – questions like “Will autonomy put people out of work?” or “Are we so preoccupied with safety that we will continue to allow other countries to ‘eat our lunch?’”

Mark Askelson

RIAS interim Executive Director Mark Askelson

“These are big questions that are going to drive the development of unmanned and autonomous,” UND President Mark Kennedy said. “We risk leaving big societal challenges on the sidelines, unless we start out first with a big, broad overview of the dynamics that are pushing back and forth against each other in relationship to the development of unmanned.”

Table discussions between industry executives, state representatives, economic development organizations, faculty and students were fast-paced and blossomed to cover everything from the speed of UAS policy and regulation advancement to public opinion and ethical concerns. Workforce development and educational needs also drove the conversation.

In the afternoon, the talk turned to the research focus areas of RIAS – autonomous platforms, applications, the data supply chain, cybersecurity and policy development.

As Gail Hand from the Office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said, the dialogue was “invigorating.”

“What people like most about meetings is being able to share ideas and exchange perceptions. This meeting got down to that business right away,” she said.

“It’s exciting to see a lot of people with a wide variety of backgrounds,” added Tom Brusegaard, Regional Director for Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. ”Sen. Hoeven appreciates the opportunity for our office to participate so I can effectively communicate the needs of industry, education and research to Washington D.C.”

“We’re going to have a lot of viewpoints. But the beauty is since it’s happening here, with our advisory boards, it becomes our discussion,” said UND Vice President for Research Grant McGimpsey. “RIAS becomes a thought leader.”

Grant McGimpsey

The RIAS Advisory Board meeting kicked off with a student poster presentation. UND Electrical Engineering grad student Mitch Campion, left, discusses his poster with Grant McGimpsey, vice president for Research & Economic Development and Dean of the UND School of Graduate Studies. Image courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

Strategic planners

Nestled under UND’s Strategic Plan Goal No. 4 (enhancing research) are five Grand Challenges, one of which is driving world-changing developments in unmanned and autonomous systems.

Askelson said the meeting of the advisory boards will help them develop corporate and state relationships that will not only help fund UND’s autonomous research, but also help align their Strategic Plan efforts with state and global needs.

“What excites me about RIAS is the ability to attack significant challenges and problems, and in doing so, solve them in a way that serves society,” Askelson said. “Look at UND’s mission – to educate, serve the public, do research. All three of those things boil down to serving people.”

“It’s been a very productive day,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, member of the N.D. House Appropriations Committee, “being introduced to research, asking how we make this become a real impact on North Dakota and our nation, and informing the next stages of research.”

Mark Kennedy

UND President Mark Kennedy, at the recent RIAS Advisory Board meeting at Robin Hall,  said it would not be a “one-and-done” event and vowed to push for continued engagement among the groups. Image courtesy of Juan Pedraza.

Team building for the future

Representatives from corporate heavy hitters like John Deere, Xcel Energy, Northrop Grumman, Harris Corporation and AE2S mingled with leaders from Grand Sky UAS Business Park, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and more – all seeking opportunities to work together for North Dakota.

“Individually, I might go out to each of these companies and have a conversation,” said Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, “but there’s such a power in this collaboration – having everyone together to be able to bounce ideas around.”

It’s the goal of RIAS to be the team building hub that drives the momentum of an already rapidly expanding field.

“There are opportunities out in industry, and there are opportunities to partner with organizations such as the University of North Dakota,” said UAS startup SkySkopes’ President and CEO Matt Dunlevy. “I can’t speak highly enough of those opportunities that we intend to bring back to SkySkopes.”

RIAS leadership will take the meeting’s input and analysis and follow up with the members of the advisory boards, which will continue to meet regularly, but separately.

President Kennedy concluded the day by promising that this wasn’t a “one-and-done” engagement.

“We intend to deepen this relationship, because we believe that each of you are important to us keeping North Dakota at the forefront of unmanned and autonomous,” he said. “We’re all better working together.”