UND Today

University of North Dakota's Official News Source

Seize the skies

UND President Kennedy sees now as carpe diem moment for North Dakota to stay ahead of UAS research pack

Mark Kennedy
During his address at the 12th Annual UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks, UND President Mark Kennedy outlined three vital inheritances for North Dakota to embrace in maintaining its status as a UAS leader. He continues to stress the importance of investing in research universities as economic engines capable of diversifying the regional economy. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

UND President Mark Kennedy rolled out a new tagline for the future of regional unmanned aircraft systems at 2018’s UAS Summit & Expo: carpe diem.

It came in the form of a question: “Will North Dakota seize the day in UAS?”

Citing factors similar to those highlighted at June’s Drone Focus Conference in Fargo, Kennedy said Tuesday, the state must make long-term, strategic investments in UAS research at universities to stay ahead of its competitors.

The summit began just days after the Northern Plains UAS Test Site (Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site) received authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly large UAS beyond an operator’s visual line of sight, without a chase plane for up to 30 miles – a first for a commercial testing site.

“We had a great celebration yesterday at Grand Sky,” he said. “We’ve reached a new milestone in flying beyond visual line of sight. A big part of why that was able to happen was research done at the University (of North Dakota) to figure out the technology needed for ground-based detect-and-avoid systems.”

This year’s summit, as always, was a who’s who of movers and shakers in the UAS industry, from Congress to the military to academia to the private sector. U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven, the junior and senior delegates, respectively, from North Dakota, joined North Dakota U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson at the gathering.

Wilson also made an extended appearance on the UND campus, participating in a North Dakota University System education roundtable, meeting with Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets from UND and touring the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.


During his presentation, Kennedy detailed three “inheritances” that North Dakota has to bolster their presence in the UAS industry.

One of those is the state’s massive oil reserves, second only to Texas nationwide. He cited Texas’ Permanent University Fund made up of significant land and mineral rights that, in the last biennium, provided over $1 billion to the University of Texas, alone. Kennedy says such money promotes research in areas that can diversify the economy.

The second is North Dakota’s advantage to leverage federal support through the “Connecticut Compromise”: despite being the 47th largest in population, the state maintains a two-person representation in the U.S. Senate.

“Having two senators focused on a smaller number of issues is a huge advantage to many states,” he said. “Talking with people from the test site, they talked about New York not being able to get the same certificate of authority we have – that’s perhaps in great part because we have two senators focused on what we need.”

Third is UND’s 50 years of aerospace leadership. Kennedy pointed to the foundation of educational excellence developed by the University over its storied flight history. With developing the first UAS operations degree, creating interdisciplinary UAS-focused programming and establishing the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), UND has the elements necessary for meaningful research contributions.

“It’s really RIAS and the aggressive, scrappy work that we’re doing with faculty that’s keeping North Dakota in the game from a research perspective,” Kennedy said.

He posed another question to his Alerus Center audience:

“Do we want to remain at the mercy of the oil and soil cycles,” he asked. “Or do we want to leverage those inheritances to diversify the economy?”

Mark Askelson
UND’s Mark Askelson, RIAS interim executive director, hopes that recent developments at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site accelerate the opportunities to research economically viable UAS solutions at UND. Both he and NPUASTS Executive Director Nicholas Flom see UND’s connection with the test site as symbiotic — the test site can defer to top faculty researchers, while those researchers can utilize the test site’s capabilities in the field. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Collaborative engine

Mark Askelson, interim executive director of RIAS, has spent years with faculty researching and developing ground-based detect-and-avoid systems for UAS. With such pioneering work aiding the test site in its recent FAA authorization, his view of UND’s role is clear.

“We’re doing these things for the people of North Dakota,” Askelson said. “We want to innovate in a way that increases opportunity in the region, and we’re on the right track.”

It’s but one example, he said, of the big things that can be accomplished by his fledgling “economic engine” of a research enterprise.

NPUASTS Executive Director Nicholas Flom characterizes the test site’s relationship with the University as “complimentary” while developing commercially viable UAS solutions.

The structure of UND’s RIAS proves beneficial, says Flom, because it encompasses UND’s campus. Whether it’s specialized engineering questions or matters of policy, he can work with Askelson and a host of other UND faculty to find answers.

“Then RIAS can look to me as a resource for a researcher at the University that has something they want to do, and we have the capability,” he said. “The test site came in to support those activities. We can play a supporting role and alternate our chances to be resources.”

Expanding on the test site’s new beyond-line-of-sight capabilities opens the door for research opportunities, says Askelson.

RIAS is applying its capabilities in other fields such as precision agriculture, infrastructure inspection and weather monitoring.

“RIAS also wants to expand its work for the Department of Defense,” Askelson said. “We’ve done it in the past and we want to do more; we’re not doing nearly as much as we should be in that realm.”

One area of focus for RIAS is big data. Most autonomous systems research is concerned with collecting data, managing that collection and extracting the information necessary to make informed decisions.

Askelson says the University is making significant investments in big data management, building up the institute’s ability to rapidly respond to industry and federal customers alike.

“I think the opportunity is right there before us,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we grab onto that opportunity and don’t let it escape us. If we’re not careful, that could happen.”