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UND takes place on world autonomous-technology stage

University and state’s autonomous-technology ecosystem was well represented at the 2021 Xponential: All Things Unmanned Conference in Atlanta

UND’s booth was a busy place throughout the 2021 Xponential: All Things Unmanned conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16-19. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

The world’s largest conference for unmanned and autonomous technology took place in Atlanta in August. And UND was there, showing the flag at a booth on the conference floor and getting all kinds of great feedback from industry leaders.

Just as important, the University wasn’t alone in highlighting the region’s strength in autonomous systems. Also present were Mayor Brandon Bochenski and others from Grand Forks, as well as representatives from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the Grand Forks-based software company Airtonomy, Xcel Energy, Microsoft, the North Dakota UAS network Vantis, and Minnkota Power Cooperative, among others.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) hosted the Xponential: All Things Unmanned conference on Aug. 16-19. AUVSI is the world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of unmanned systems and robotics. “The organization represents corporations and professionals from more than 60 countries involved in industry, government and academia, and AUVSI members also work in the defense, civil and commercial markets,” AUVSI’s website states.

UND’s delegation to the conference included representatives from the Odegaard School of Aerospace Sciences, the College of Engineering & Mines, the Center for Innovation and the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems. Photos of the event are below, interspersed with comments from the participants on the exceptional value of attending the one-of-a-kind conference.

Some takeaways that emerged from the gathering are a clear sense of the worldwide need for pilots and engineers, as well as a strong interest in the industry-related programs that are offered at UND.

As one observer said about the conference, Xponential “helps you separate the signal from the noise and write the next chapter of automated innovation.”

This group photo, taken at the AUVSI Xponential Conference in Atlanta in August, includes Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski as well as individuals from the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Airtonomy, Xcel Energy, Microsoft, Minnkota Power Cooperative and UND. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

Naomi Hansen, Director of Marketing & Communications, Research Institute for Autonomous Systems:

It was fantastic to see genuine enthusiasm for the research taking place at UND in such a fast-paced, growing industry. In addition, the interest in our academic programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional level was an added bonus.

We had the chance to connect with UND Alumni and industry partners, as well as to form new connections with startup companies and industry leaders.

This conference is a great opportunity for UND to form and strengthen connections by highlighting our research, academics, industry partnerships, workforce development opportunities and alumni connections. We were able to successfully showcase that we are One UND and continue to be leaders in the industry.

Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski (left) and Joshua Riedy, CEO of the Grand Forks-based software company Airtonomy, spoke at a gathering at the 2021 AUVSI Xponential conference. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

Paul Snyder, Director of UAS Program, Odegaard School of Aerospace Sciences:

Fantastic conference, well worth the all the energy to prepare for, execute, and to follow up with afterwards.  Special thanks to Naomi for all the coordination!

First – the synergy we had between UND departments to go to this conference reflects the effort that will be needed to solve the current and future problems in UAS Industry. UND together has a lot to offer.

It was exciting to see UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems, the Center for Innovation, the College of Engineering & Mines and UND Aerospace come together to attend this event. Together, we represent a major share of the work happening in North Dakota.

Even though COVID caused a reduction in attendance at the convention, we were all consistently engaged in:

Discussion with UAS-related companies

Responding to those seeking UND expertise in research/problem solving

Helping companies meet future workforce needs with UND students

Better understanding existing technology and challenges in the industry

Collaborating with companies we are currently working with throughout the world.

One of the goals of the UAS program is to be “engaged with industry and government,” plus “influencing through education, research innovation, safety and policy.” This conference was a culmination and in part, a realization of that goal.

Shown here is the UND booth at the AUVSI’s 2021 Xponential Conference, the world’s largest conference for unmanned and autonomous technology. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

James Moe, Assistant Chief – UAS Pilot, Aerospace:

A major issue we have is the inability to understand market needs, trends and advances.  Things that are advertised don’t necessarily give an accurate impression of how most problems are actually being solved or newer process efficiencies.

Most companies consider this information proprietary for economic reasons, and attending a show like this allows for a little more insight and visibility.  We typically get to see and witness technology that changes how we look to face problems we’re trying to solve.  This goes hand-in-hand with our need to train students to prepare them for those changes.

Having a booth directly impacted our outreach for student placement.  During this event, I was able to speak directly to people looking to hire our students and even gather some information about how to prepare students for future employment.

UND hosted a networking reception at the 2021 AUVSI Xponential Conference in Atlanta, Aug. 16-19. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

Jeremiah Neubert, Professor of Mechanical Engineering/RIAS Lead:

I liked being able to meet with vendors whose products or services we are using on projects. I also looked at some of the hardware to get an idea of what the State of the Art is right now.

And I talked to a lot of companies looking to hire our students. I attended an event at which a company I am working with received a $500,000 investment. At that meeting, I was able to network with some of our industrial partners.

After the event, we also had a major team-building exercise that truly strengthened the relationships we have with one another.


UND’s networking reception allowed University, local and state officials to socialize with leaders in the drone, intelligent robotics and unmanned systems fields. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

Jordan Krueger, Research Manager, RIAS:

The ability to see in person the amazing technology that the industry is developing and using, versus on a website or on YouTube videos, is invaluable.


Vantis, North Dakota’s UAS network, also was represented at the 2021 AUVSI Xponential Conference. Photo courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

Anthony Maher, Entrepreneur Coach, Center for Innovation:

Benefits of attending the convention include:

  1. Knowledge: Increase my knowledge of the UAS ecosystem and the disciplines attached to it (e.g., regulation, workforce development, technologies, markets)
  2. Networking: Getting out of the office for the first major industry event in a long while! Meeting new people and discussing things in person is a welcome change of pace, plus it also promotes closer connections
  3. Inspiration: Get energized and motivated via exposure to industry developments, then return with fresh ideas, actions, and intel for the team


Mark Askelson, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Executive Director, RIAS:

For UND, the AUVSI Xponential Conference is:

  • A tremendous opportunity to develop new partnerships
  • Crucial to our continuing to be a leader in the industry


UND’s presence at the 2021 AUVSI Xponential Conference helped cement the University’s reputation as a place for ‘Leaders in Unmanned and Autonomous Innovation,’ participants said. Phto courtesy of Naomi Hansen/UND.

Naima Kaabouch, Professor, Director of the Artificial Intelligence Research  Institute, and Lead of Cybersecurity & Data Chain in RIAS:

In addition to Mark Askelson’s points, I would add that the conference gives us the chance to learn about the challenges and problems facing industry and the country. Those also are factors related to Mark’s Item 2.


Renee Shelton, Project Manager and Entrepreneur Coach, Center for Innovation:

My additions to the list of benefits of attending the AUVSI Xponential Conference:

  • Excellent education opportunities, helping us track and stay abreast of industry evolutions
  • Wonderful opportunities to tell the North Dakota UAS Ecosystem story, which is second to none
  • Puts North Dakota on the maps and radars of not only domestic but also international corporations and start-ups
  • Offers the world a reminder that in North Dakota, it’s easy to do business!