Space: The final frontier — for drones

Co-sponsored by UND, premier UAS summit highlights rapid merging of UAS, space technologies

Attendees to the 15th Annual UAS Summit at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks visit the Expo Hall, which featured the latest in UAS technology and services. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

For the first time in its 15-year history, the annual UAS Summit held in early October at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, N.D., centered on not only unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) but also space technology.

A common theme among speakers and panelists at this year’s Summit was the need to quickly develop and field new technologies for space and unmanned systems to keep the United States ahead of its competitors and adversaries, as well as to develop the workforce needed to operate these new systems.

Col. Jeremy Fields

“In order to assure future U.S. generations will continue to enjoy the advantages we’ve possessed for nearly a century, the need to accelerate change is driven by an understanding that the U.S. homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” said Col. Jeremy Fields, vice commander of the 319 Reconnaissance Wing at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“We face threats from a variety of actors and competitors whose aggressive efforts and actions show a sense of urgency,” he added. “It’s critical that we recognize the same sense of urgency to change and modernize.”

As an example, Fields said the Air Force is now using artificial intelligence to reduce the number of personnel needed to process massive amounts of intelligence data, speeding up the process and enabling humans to focus on making important, timely decisions.

“We can share information at an operationally relevant speed to help defend our warfighters on the ground,” he explained.

After becoming the first university to join the U.S. Space Force’s University Partnership Program, the University of North Dakota was a full-fledged partner at the summit to discuss parallels in UAS and space for research and workforce development. Combined with UND’s key role in North Dakota’s UAS ecosystem, the Summit proved a significant opportunity for the University to showcase its capabilities.

UND President Armacost gave a keynote address on research and workforce opportunities for the University in UAS  and space technologies for the military and private sectors. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

UND President Andrew Armacost delivered a keynote address in which he outlined how his research experience in the U.S. Air Force shaped his leadership approach to pursuing opportunities in UAS and space technologies.

“What I learned through this was the connection of these methods across many domains,” he said. “It forces me here at UND to think about what we’ve done with remote unmanned aircraft that will apply to space.”

Armacost recalled a tour at Grand Forks Air Force Base during which he was able to observe the differences between the control system for the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft and a conventional manned aircraft.

A UND student demonstrates drone racing during a reception in Robin Hall as part of the 15th Annual UAS Summit. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

“They look a lot more like satellite control systems than they do like a traditional cockpit,” he explained. “The analog between space and unmanned aircraft seems to be very, very strong, and it points us in a certain direction. How does this influence the way we’re looking at life here at UND?”

The key, he said, is partnerships with national defense agencies, such the Space Force and the U.S. Space Development Agency, whose director, Derek Tournear, visited UND a year ago and discussed how UAS control systems might be used to guide satellites in low-earth orbit. U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., outlined how that mission will soon be coming to Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Armacost also pointed out that UND is engaged in partnerships with industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the Grand Sky Technology Park, the North Dakota Department of Commerce and Vantis, the first statewide beyond-visual-line-of-sight UAS network. However, training and education partnerships are also critical to how new technologies will be employed.

“Workforce development is how we prepare our students to enter this new era of space work,” Armacost noted. “We’re well positioned with the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, the College of Engineering & Mines, the College of Arts & Sciences and our School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, as well as other disciplines in business, law, political science and medicine.

“We also look at our partnerships with other schools,” he continued. “It’s the idea that we can connect our four-year colleges and our research colleges with our two-year programs. We look to those important partnerships to develop the full suite of our workforce – not just those with undergraduate or graduate degrees.”

The UAS Summit also included a panel discussion focused on UAS and space. Terri Zimmerman, CEO of Fargo-based Botlink, moderated the panel, which included William Cromarty with Spire Global; Armacost; Robert Kraus, dean of UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences; Brian Tande, dean of UND College of Engineering & Mines; Brad Rundquist, dean of the UND College of Arts & Sciences; and Mark Askelson, executive director of UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS).

The two-day conference was sponsored by UAS Magazine, published by Grand Forks-based BBI International. John Nelson, the company’s vice president of operations, marketing and sales, said a strong push was made to increase UND’s visibility at this conference.

“We wanted to make sure the University and its students were front and center at this event, as well as the research and other developments happening in the region,” he said. “UND was the perfect partner. We wanted to get students here to show their research. We wanted to get them focused on workforce development and connected with the larger companies looking for students coming out of UND.”

A panel on UAS and space featured (left to right) Terri Zimmerman, CEO of Botlink; UND President Andrew Armacost; Robert Kraus, aerospace dean; Brad Rundquist, arts & sciences dean; Brian Tande, engineering dean; Mark Askelson,executive director of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS); and William Cromarty with Spire Global. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Additional comments from speakers at the 15th Annual UAS Summit:

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven: “What’s the No. 1 challenge across the country right now? It’s manpower. It’s getting men and women in all different types of work. What better feeder system could you have than the University of North Dakota John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences? All the pieces are here. We all need to work together to make it happen.”

George Rumford, director, Test Resource Management Center: “We also work extensively with universities. We sponsor a lot of technology development at universities to try to improve our ability to do testing. And there’s a lot of things in the Grand Forks/Grand Sky area that has a lot of nexus of interest to us because of the energy and technology and capabilities that are already here. There’s a lot of things that you already have resident here that we don’t have to try to replicate or build someplace else. So the fastest way of getting there is taking what’s already here and building upon it and making that happen. And we’re all about getting it done fast.”

Jane Bishop, sector vice president and general manager of global surveillance, Northrop Grumman: “The talent we have in North Dakota is what allows us to be successful in this state. We continue to welcome more intern and full-time employees through strong partnerships with the University of North Dakota and Northland Community & Technical College that remain committed to help place students and new graduates in the local UAS industry.”

Tala Talaei Khoei, a UND Ph.D. student, presents her poster on cyber attacks targeting UAS. Photo by Patrick C. Miller, UND Today.

U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer: “The ecosystem that we talk about that’s been created here in North Dakota – particularly in the Red River Valley and especially up here in the Grand Forks region – is really quite remarkable and it’s quite unique. And it is an edge. We live in a time when whether it’s national defense or farming or manufacturing or transportation – it’s really a matter of survival. It’s challenging to come up with solutions that move quickly. And yet we have to because our competitors do.”

Rear Adm. Lorin Selby, chief of naval research, Office of Naval Research: “If we don’t develop the STEM talent in this nation that can actually work for people like myself, then we’re going to lose. Today, we do not develop enough American citizens with degrees that we need to man the positions in government, industry and academia that we need to be able to take on these huge challenges. I am doubling down on our outreach to students across this nation, trying to use virtual means and in-person means to reach them and show them some of the cool things we do.”