Kennedy: research universities key to staying ahead of unmanned curve

UND President among featured speakers at regional Drone Focus Conference in Fargo

UND President Mark Kennedy

Speaking to an audience at the Fargo Civic Center, UND President Mark Kennedy made his case for statewide research investment concerning UAS development. While other states have the means, North Dakota has the collaborative spirit, according to Kennedy. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

FARGO — Speaking at 2018’s Drone Focus Conference here, UND President Mark Kennedy compared the state’s role in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to Minnesota at the dawn of the computer industry.

“At the time, four of the five largest computer companies had major regional presences or global headquarters in Minnesota,” he said. “They were second only to California in the number of computer jobs. At the same time, California focused on universities. Three of the first four universities to start the internet were in California.”

As he put it, Minnesota bet on companies; California bet on research universities.

Kennedy remarked, “How did that turn out?”

Research focus

While North Dakota is currently the “Silicon Valley” of UAS development, Kennedy emphasized the necessity of research-focused institutions to keep it that way.

“In the end, it will be UAS research that is going to be the key to this region continuing its leadership in unmanned,” he told his audience at the Fargo Civic Center. “If you look at North Dakota, the state has a long history of understanding the value of research.”

He offered the example of continued state research investments in agriculture, as well as the research conducted by UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) – helping unlock the full potential of North Dakota’s resources.

“We’re pleased to conduct over $100 million annually in research at UND, a significant part of that coming from our federal partners,” he said. “We’re also pleased to have launched the Research Institute in Autonomous Systems that’s reaching out to North Dakota State as well as others in the region to make sure we’re pulling in talent.”

The research institute, more commonly referred to as RIAS (pronounced “rise”), covers a broad range of topics in unmanned that aren’t limited to flight. Kennedy touts their focus as something that sets the state apart from other states who seek to advance their UAS developments.

Kennedy’s confidence in UND’s research leadership comes after the announcement of a new partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) through the UAS Integration Pilot Program. Out of 149 proposals from around the country, North Dakota’s DOT was among the 10 selected. The program will help drone operations integrate with U.S. airspace safely and effectively. The Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site (NPUASTS), which operates out of UND’s campus, will use its local connections — such as RIAS — in conducting a variety of research.

“Part of what brought the program here is they see that spirit in North Dakota,” Kennedy said, when asked about UND’s capacity for collaboration. “We know that in order for us to compete nationally, we need the governor, legislature, cities, universities and corporate partners all working together.”

UND President Mark Kennedy

Kennedy is confident in UND’s vision for RIAS to become a rapid-response institution for state and federal UAS needs. The EERC’s role as a contracted energy enterprise stands to be a model for the young research institute. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

UND presence

This year’s fourth annual Drone Focus Conference drew government, industry and research leaders from around the state and country to Fargo. The conference is “designed to serve as a platform for you to build your business, your knowledge and simply get you in a room to network with fellow enthusiasts.”

Among the speakers were North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford; Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.; and Derek Kan, undersecretary of transportation for the U.S. DOT.

UND also had a presence throughout the conference, with Mark Askelson, interim executive director of RIAS, and Prakash Ranganathan of UND’s Electrical Engineering Department leading a presentation on counter-UAS systems with NPUASTS Executive Director Nicholas Flom.

Ahead of the game

Kennedy also had a message for North Dakota.

“If the state bets on UAS research, we, as the only University northwest of Chicago to be in the Top 25 Most Innovative Schools in the country, are committed to keeping North Dakota leading as the premiere unmanned state,” he said. “We believe there are many benefits that will accrue to the state as part of that.”

Even during financial strain, UND remains committed to helping the state stay ahead. Kennedy pointed to the repurposing of $4 million for the University’s Strategic Plan Grand Challenges, with the most significant being investments in UAS.

Also outlined were plans to develop a rapid response team to work more closely with corporate and government partners. Kennedy likened his vision for RIAS to that of the EERC in the way it’s contracted as an energy enterprise, envisioning RIAS to be the “same thing, but in the unmanned space.”

“When you look at some of the money that the Department of Defense has with other universities, it’s a very significant source of funding out there that we believe can get RIAS to be as big as EERC in the years ahead.”