A Q&A with Robert Kraus, UND’s new aerospace dean

Fourth dean of John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences discusses military career, school’s strengths, his approach to leadership and more

Editor’s note: Friday, Jan. 15, marked the first day of Robert Kraus’ deanship, as well as his first interview with UND Today.

How has your first week or so been in Grand Forks? How are you feeling now that you’ve set foot on campus?

Jokingly, it’s cold and windy. But actually this week has been wonderful. The weather was great earlier this week. I got into town on Monday, then came in for a tour of the campus on Wednesday, where I met some of the outstanding faculty and the leadership that’s here. Then, today was my first day, and I’ve been in meetings since 8 o’clock this morning.

Can you talk about what led to your interest in UND, and the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, as it relates to your military and civilian careers?

Ten years ago, when I was at the Air Force Academy, I became aware of University of North Dakota, and specifically the Center for Innovation here. The Air Force Academy has a Center of Innovation, and there were some partnerships between the two institutions, with an exchange of personnel between them.

Through that, I learned more about what was going on up here. And, of course, I had long ago heard about the flight program. I think everyone’s heard about the flight program, and I stayed peripherally aware of it as time went on.

As I was getting out of the Air Force, I was interested in returning to northeast Ohio, where I grew up, which is how I ended up at Kent State University. I started there in the summer of 2019 as an Associate Dean with a flight training program similar to the flight training program here, just on a smaller scale.

And the more I investigated the Odegard School, the more interested I became, especially after I found out that the dean’s position was becoming available.

I also looked at the various departments that were in the college. A key program that had caught my eye over time was the growing UAS program, and really the pace at which it’s been growing. You know, a lot of universities have UAS programs, but they’re playing with the DJI Phantoms, the small quadrotor things, and those types of drones. But there aren’t that many universities that are looking at remotely piloted aircraft and the larger drones, and the bigger customers that are out there for them.

When you couple the flight training program with the UAS program, and then on top of that you add in the other departments that are part of the college, it was all of those are things that really intrigued me in what’s going on here, which is what led me to apply.

As an Air Force pilot with more than 3,300 hours of flight time, what are some thoughts you’ve had about leading one of the nation’s top flight schools during an era of increased demand for pilots in the aviation industry (COVID-19 notwithstanding)?

So, the first priority is to maintain the high quality of the program. Obviously, we can talk numbers of students – quantity – but we have to maintain that high quality and that professional standard that UND is known for.

As long as we’re able to do that, we then balance that with how many more students can we bring in and still maintain that level of quality?

Then it becomes a question of resources. Obviously, it’s money that makes airplanes fly. A lot of people think it’s aviation gas, but no, it’s money in the end. So, how do you look at it from a business perspective, from a business model, and say, “Okay, money in, airplane out, students out the door?”

And then the other part of it is, are we developing the partnerships that enable the students who graduate to get jobs?

Of course, with COVID-19 this year, there’s been a slowdown in the industry. But all of the experts that are out there believe that this is a hiccup. This is a temporary slowdown, and we expect an almost full recovery of the industry.

The big thing that’s still going on in the aviation industry are the retirements, and we’ve seen this across the board, in many industries – buyout and early retirement programs. And then, of course, on the professional aviation side, there is a mandatory retirement age.

Those are still occurring. The upper levels of those communities are leaving, which means they have to be growing their entry-level people – and you can’t just hire somebody who’s a mid-level pilot.

It’s like a hose: you have to have the inflow if you have the outflow. So, it’s balancing all of that, while maintaining the professional standards.

UND archival image.

At Kent State, you were on the flight operations side of things. Can you talk about what you learned from that experience, and the way that you’re now looking at what UND is facing?

For instance, UND Aerospace is looking at finishing up some repairs out at the Grand Forks airport and improving some of the facilities there – like you said, maintaining that quality.

How did your experience shape your thoughts about that flight ops piece?

A great question. I would say that the first thing you have to look at is, what is the cost of the students to come to the University of North Dakota, and, in addition to the tuition that they’re paying, what are the flight fees that they’re paying?

And based on that, the question is, is there enough money from that to make the infrastructure improvements that we need? Chances are, there is not. So there has to be other money coming into the program, and this is where partnerships, corporate donations and alumni donors really help.

I think everyone’s aware of the tightening budgets from the state and federal sources. So, it’s really on that philanthropic side that there are opportunities to make those improvements. It really becomes a marketing issue at that point, to say, what are the benefits of these programs? And, what are the risks if we don’t make those improvements?

Certainly, as pointed out in your UND Today story just this week on the ramp infrastructure, it’s critical that we improve those things.

And then, the next step is that we need a new operations building out at the airport. So, there are things that are very much needed.

I did see this at Kent State. I came into the program right at the end of construction of a new flight operations building. I wasn’t part of the fundraising, but I got to see the difference between the old facilities they were in and the new. It makes a huge difference, not only with improving the quality of education for current students, but also with recruitment. Today, the prospective students who are out there are able to say, “Hey, look at this incredible facility. That’s where I want to go to school.”

What are your early impressions of UND Aerospace’s non-flight departments and how they contribute to the school’s success?

The college is not just aviation, although of course, aviation is a large portion of it. But the question is, are there partnerships? Are there research grants? Are there other universities, other programs or other industries that we can work with that will let us continue providing a great education, in those particular areas?

So as we look at Space Studies, for example, we see that we have an incredible program on spacesuits that Dr. de León’s been working on, plus the Lunar/Mars habitat. Who else can we work with to expand those programs?

We have an incredible astronomy program, too, looking at the asteroid belts and those types of things. If you follow what’s going on in the news, there’s a new telescope. The James Webb Telescope is going to launch this coming fall; it’s the successor to the Hubble, and is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built.

The question is, are there ways that we can get our Space Studies program involved?

The International Space Station has been up for more than 20 years now. What’s the replacement for the ISS? Is there a role that this university can play in what goes on that space station in the design of the space station?

Obviously, there are the engineering aspects and other things, but from a space science perspective, there are incredible opportunities for those things.

Atmospheric Sciences, and Earth System Science & Policy – we’re affected by weather here. We saw that in the last 24 hours. There’s still science that needs to be done in those areas.

And as we look at weather on a global perspective, are there areas in which we can conduct education and research that will contribute to those fields?

So, the model is similar. It’s delivering a high quality education at a low cost to students. And the way that you do that is by forming partnerships and getting grants from the applicable granting agencies, industry or government partnerships.

What has been your impression of the research capabilities present at the Odegard School, or what intrigues you? You’ve mentioned partnerships a fair amount.

Before I actually got here in Grand Forks, most of my news about the school came from you – from the UND news blogs, and the articles that you guys post on there. So, thank you for those!

In looking at those stories, and now that I’ve been here on the job for a time, my sense is that the grants that are already in place are good. The FAA just announced this week a whole series of new grants for UAS, and out of maybe six or seven grants, five of them have UND’s name on them. That’s another win for us.

And it’s not just an issue of money coming in, it’s the quality of the research that we’re providing to someone else.

You’ve heard the term “Centers of Excellence.” That can be tossed around with a capital “C” Center of Excellence, or lower-case “c” center of excellence.

We always want to be known, at minimum, as a lower-case “c” center of excellence. In other words, we want not just the name of a Center, but the national reputation as a center.

So, when someone says, ‘Who can I contact about UAS? Who can I contact about space sciences, or 3D-printed spacesuits?’, we want UND to be the first thing that comes to their mind.

It’s kind of like when you when you go to Google, and you type in something into the search bar, what’s the first thing that comes up? We want our programs to be the first thing that comes up, on Google and everywhere else.

Image courtesy of UND Aerospace.

As you know, UND was the first university to offer a degree in unmanned aircraft systems operations and has continued its leadership in this booming field. How are you hoping to support UND’s role as an academic, research and workforce leader in matters of UAS?

As you’re well aware, we have the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems. That’s a big part of it. Then, working with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, it’s looking at who are the partners already in this. And, of course, the state’s very invested in this statewide initiative – the beyond-visual-line-of-sight, Vantis network.

We need to make sure that we’re involved, with a leading role in most initiatives. That goes back to, are we the center of excellence for that particular topic? That’s one that we really have to be careful about, because there’s so much UAS and remotely piloted aircraft research going on across the country and the world.

We’ve been leading. Can we maintain that lead? And the only way to do that is to make sure that all of the organizations that are doing these types of things are either collaborating or at least not interfering with each other.

We have to focus on the synergies between entities and see where the opportunities are to partner, to support each other. I think there’s a big opportunity for that here.

To follow up on that, what is your perspective on the future of UAS, in general?

There are a lot of different opportunities out there. There are of course military opportunities, and that’s the area that comes to mind when people think of large UAS, though we’re seeing a much faster advance in package delivery.

So, on the UPS and FedEx and Amazon sides, there are these little pockets around the country where they’re starting to deliver packages that way.

There also have been some medical networks that are delivering organs across the city, for organ transplant. They’ll harvest the organ at one hospital, and they will fly the organ to the other hospital because traffic through town is too congested.

The issue here is infrastructure. It’s kind of like building a road, right? You can’t drive across town unless there’s a road. This is where Vantis and the BVLOS network comes in: they’ll help establish the rules of the road. How do you fly drones when you can’t see where they are?

You’ve got to have that system and the rules and the regulations in place so that you can do that. So, package delivery is the start.

There’s been a lot of talk and speculation about taxi services, too. There’s also been a lot of excitement about it, and we’re starting to see some consolidation within that industry.

In my view, the taxi service side of the problem becomes, I think, much more of a social acceptance issue. And the more people get used to working with drones, seeing drones, those types of things, the more we can make drones a part of our daily lives.

Derek Tournear (center), director of the Space Defense Agency, visits UND’s Human Spaceflight Laboratory on Oct. 14, 2020. Pablo de León, Space Studies department chair (left) briefed Tournear and Sen. Kevin Cramer on research projects in the lab. UND archive photo.

Over the past year or so, our congressional delegation has created excellent connections between the University and some of our nation’s space leaders. President Andy Armacost also has signaled his enthusiasm for advancing UND’s participation in space-based research and development. Could you talk about how your career has involved space, and where you hope to see the College’s Space Studies program excel?

This goes back to when I was at the Air Force Academy. I took over as the Chief Scientist, which is equivalent to the Vice President for Research here at UND. We had 21 research centers and institutes with their research assignments were under me. Three of them were space related. One was building, launching and controlling satellites in orbit.

That’s more on the engineering side of it. It’s everything from the CubeSats – miniaturized satellites, cubic modules that are 10 centimeters on a side; can you launch those, can you control them, that type of thing – all the way up to a one-meter cube.

They also had a satellite control facility that allowed them operate multiple satellites and involved undergraduate students on a daily basis. This is an opportunity for our College to build a satellite control station and partner with other organizations that have satellites already in operation.

We also had projects on the science side. One was looking at space physics and atmospheric research by building a CubeSat to look at the Sun.

The third focus was space situational awareness, which is a huge area of interest still today for U.S. Space Command, the U.S. Space Force, and the Air Force as well. As we look at space, and at all of the launches that have occurred since 1959, there’s a lot of debris up in space. And the question is, do we know every piece of debris that’s up there? Are we able to track it?

This is where a space fence comes into play, as well as space observation. Everyone thinks about satellites in space looking at the earth, but, the question is, are there satellites that are looking at each other? Are we surveilling in orbit itself?

These are all opportunities for study and research and ways that our Space Studies program can work with the Department of Defense, in particular, but again, also with NASA on the science side.

Meanwhile, there also has been a lot of interest in the past few years – in going to Mars. With Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship System, and then the Space Launch System and Orion with NASA and the United Launch Alliance, we’re seeing a much bigger push to go back to the Moon first, and then take those systems to the next level and going to Mars.

There are incredible science opportunities in both of those that UND can contribute to.

You and President Armacost both have close ties to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Have you previously worked with him, and what are your thoughts on now being able to work with him in this civilian, academic setting?

The answer is yes. And I’m thrilled to be able to work with him again.

In fact, besides our interactions as fellow faculty members and administrators over the years, President Armacost was actually my supervisor for a time. In 2013-2014, while I was the Academy’s Chief Scientist, he became the Dean of the Faculty.

I learned then what people at UND have found out over the past year: that Dr. Armacost is the kind of leader whom people enjoy following, because he’s smart and so personable that you willingly make his priorities your own.

How would you describe your leadership style, and how is it going to shape your first days and weeks as dean?

One of my strengths, I think, is that I get up to speed quickly. Because of my experience in the Air Force, and at Kent State, I already know the language of the aerospace school; so it’s really just learning the nuances of what’s different in this role, and this system. That’s the part that I’ll be getting up to speed quickly on, in terms of my leadership style.

I believe in empowering and trusting people, and giving them the resources they need to do their job. And whether that’s training, the funding, or other resources of some kind – I view my role as the dean in supporting this college and finding the resources they need to do the job of educating students and conducting first-class research.

That being said, of course, there also is a bigger organizational strategy that needs to be followed as well. We need to look at what the needs of the constituents are, the stakeholders. We have alumni, donors, granting organizations, the greater University, the local region and economic development that need to be considered.

We look at all of those constituents and say, okay, what are the needs, and what does this college need to do? Then, how do we match up what our specialties are to what those needs are?

It’s kind of being a matchmaker, and providing the vision to say, ‘This is where we need to go.’

What are some things you’re looking forward to in getting to know the community, both on campus and in Grand Forks?

So, I’ll say the politically correct answer: hockey. I actually haven’t been much of a hockey person, mostly because I haven’t been around it much. Cleveland lost their hockey team in the mid-1970s. However, we’re looking forward to learning more about it and supporting the team.

I’m a cycling fan – not too much cycling going on up here these days, unless it’s indoors! But my wife and I love to get out and explore – especially if we can take the dogs out with us. We love to go to farmers markets and town festivals, and learning more about local history.

I had a meeting with the leadership team of the college just today, and I asked them to tell me about one of their favorite events or places to go, or something to do in the region. In addition to hockey games and “going to the lake,” they told me about history museums, the North Dakota Museum of Art and the concerts that go on, all those types of things.

Having arrived just on Monday, my wife and I literally drove almost every street in this city, because we’re looking for a house to either buy or land to build on.

We even drove through downtown and stopped at one of the coffee shops before heading over to East Grand Forks and said, ‘Hey, there’s a Cabela’s here, too.’

What was nice was the first night we were here, we had dinner at Texas Roadhouse. We happened to mention that we had just gotten into town, and we’re moving here, and the manager came over and gave us a gift certificate for an appetizer – welcoming us to the town.

Everyone has been very welcoming and friendly.