UND experts appear on Autonomous Systems panel

Panel facilitated by NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott was part of Innovation Day at North Dakota’s Grand Farm

From left, the Research and Autonomous Systems panel at the Grand Farm Innovation Day event featured moderator Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System; John Mihelich, UND’s vice president for research & economic development;  Frank Casey, director of the North Dakota State University School of Natural Resource Sciences; Mark Askelson, executive director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems; and Jane Schuh, NDSU’s vice president for research and creative activity. Web screenshot.

The panel discussion didn’t last long; only 20 minutes. That’s not enough time to do more than scratch the surface, especially when the panel’s topic is as rich and futuristic as this one’s was: Research and Autonomous Systems.

No matter. Because at Grand Farm — the experimental farm south of Fargo that is itself an astonishing showcase of autonomous systems — the identities of the participants in the Research and Autonomous Systems panel on Innovation Day, Oct. 8, seemed as important as anything that got said.

That’s because the panel brought together two of UND’s top specialists in autonomous systems, sat them down with their counterparts from North Dakota State University, and brought in the North Dakota University System’s chancellor — who also happens to be the former deputy director of the Center for Cyber Security Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy — to facilitate.

The fact that North Dakota can not only assemble so much talent in one place, but also count on all of them to work together for the state’s good, was the real highlight of the session, the panelists agreed.

Representing UND on the panel were John Mihelich, UND’s vice president for research & economic development, and Mark Askelson, executive director of the University’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems.

Representing North Dakota State University were Jane Schuh, vice president for research and creative activity, and Frank Casey, director of the NDSU School of Natural Resource Sciences.

“We have such a great foundation in North Dakota, especially in the world of autonomy with the ecosystem expertise we have across our universities,” Mihelich said.

Schuh agreed. And just look around the Grand Farm tent where the panel was taking place, she said. So many people were under that tent, both literally and figuratively: “We’ve got businesses that work together, we’ve got legislators that work together, we’ve got academics that work together.

“The diversity of the partnerships that we can form is one of the best things about North Dakota, and the reason we can move things forward.”

Grand Farm is a 40-acre test site located south of Fargo and just east of Exit 54 on Interstate 29. The brainchild of Emerging Prairie, a Fargo, N.D.-based nonprofit, Grand Farm is meant to be a bridge between farming today and future farming. Microsoft concept image.

Rare assets

Understand, such partnerships are nowhere near as common elsewhere, noted the panel’s facilitator, Chancellor Mark Hagerott of the North Dakota University System.

In other states, one doesn’t typically see the state university and land-grant university’s VPs of research, plus the head of autonomous systems research at one university and director of the natural-resources school at the other, sit down together to discuss making the state a better place, Hagerott said.

Moreover, the innovative autonomous systems that the panelists all focused on are absolutely vital to the future of not only North Dakota, but also the United States.

Imagine a COVID-type epidemic, but one as contagious and deadly as smallpox: The shutdowns and quarantines would threaten the entire economy with collapse, Hagerott said.

“But if we had automated trucks, we could keep delivering food,” he said. “If we had automated farms, they could keep going while the farmers are getting better.”

Couple such scenarios with the role autonomous systems will play in the military and other walks of life, and the conclusion is clear: “This is a national security as well as a food security issue,” Hagerott said. “The research enterprise that is represented here is so important on so many levels.”

At the Innovation Day event at Grand Farm on Oct. 8, the North Dakota Department of Transportation unveiled a the prototype of a high-tech autonomous vehicle system. The prototype will be tested on the state’s roads and highways next year. Image courtesy of Naomi Hansen.

Speaking of automated trucks, they proved to be another highlight of Innovation Day at Grand Farm. About an hour before the panel, a crowd of about 100 people watched as a convoy of two North Dakota Department of Transportation trucks rolled past, Forum Communications reported.

The lead truck held a driver with a passenger monitoring the wireless connections to the second truck, according to the story.

That lead vehicle “calmly slipped past the crowd, while the trailing vehicle — with Sen. John Hoeven riding in the passenger seat and no one behind the wheel — trailed behind like a calf following its mother.”

North Dakota’s expanding focus on autonomous systems is a natural outgrowth of UND and Grand Forks’ landmark commitment to the Unmanned Aerial Systems industry over the past 15 years, Hoeven said.

The commitment to UAS already has made North Dakota a world leader in that industry, and the experience now is paying off in other fields.

In the next five to 15 years, “we’re going to be on the map in a big, big, big way” with automated vehicles and other autonomous systems, Hoeven said. “This is going to be a big deal.”

And remember, autonomous-systems research and UND, NDSU and elsewhere in North Dakota is not just developing technology, Mihelich said. It’s also training students — and by doing so, producing a steady supply of skilled professionals who are ready to staff the technological workplaces of North Dakota’s future.

UND Research Institute for Autonomous Systems Director Mark Askelson agreed. “These students are being developed so they can go out and make things happen,” Askelson said on the panel.

“It sounds hokey, but they are the future.” Moreover, they’re finding themselves in demand, in part because North Dakota’s commitment to workforce training and research opportunities for students encourages employers to set up shop in the state, he said.