UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

How UAS could help ‘revolutionize rural living’

Federal grant will help UND, North Dakota put uncrewed aerial systems to best use

A new grant will help UND develop a commercialization strategy for the state’s uncrewed aerial systems network. This photo shows Tau Drones, a Grand Forks company, as it works with UND to test commercialization ideas, such as using drones to study heat loss from UND campus steam pipes and to monitor pipelines for the oil and gas industry. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

In August, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo announced the Department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded a $1 million grant to UND to conduct an economic impact study and commercialization strategy for the state’s uncrewed aerial systems network.

To accomplish this work, the project will leverage several University of North Dakota departments: The UND Center for Innovation (CFI), the UND School of Aerospace Sciences, the UND Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), and the UND Institute for Policy and Business Analytics.

In addition to the University of North Dakota, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Thales Group and the state of North Dakota will help implement demonstration projects, strengthen connections between state agencies and collaborate on developing the statewide commercialization and economic studies.

The UND Center for Innovation will lead the effort and coordinate grant partners. The award is funded by the American Rescue Plan and EDA’s $300 million Coal Communities Commitment. North Dakota is prepared to grow this emerging industry sector so its coal-impacted communities, tribal nations and rural communities can increase economic resilience, identify entrepreneurial opportunities, increase efficiencies, enhance safety and bring new capabilities to businesses and people.

“This is an exciting opportunity to think strategically about North Dakota’s fast-growing autonomous industry sector with our partners across the state,” said Amy Whitney, director of the UND Center for Innovation (CFI), “The intended strategy will help us to further position North Dakota as a national leader while enabling us to know how to revolutionize rural living through the use of uncrewed aerial systems.”

The project will examine economic development opportunities and applications of uncrewed aerial systems across North Dakota. This two-year project capitalizes on ND’s reputation as the Silicon Valley for drones with goals focused on showcasing the state as a destination for UAS operations. Featured outcomes of this project include:

(1) A statewide economic impact study and commercialization strategy with a specific focus on rural community connectivity, tribal nations and coal-impacted communities.

(2) Three demonstration projects with industry partners to validate technology, identify opportunities and recognize barriers to commercialization and implementation such as policy, regulation, infrastructure, etc. to inform current and future investments.

“The Institute of Policy and Business Analytics is pleased to contribute economic and policy analysis to the interdisciplinary and diverse project team. The project will serve as an important foundation for the UAS ecosystem in North Dakota, which will continue to evolve as an important economic engine in the state,” said Jason Jensen, executive director of the UND Institute for Policy and Business Analytics.

Over the past decade, North Dakota has helped a fast-growing autonomous regional industry position itself as a national testing site for uncrewed aerial system innovations (both on land and in air and space). This project allows North Dakota to create a shared vision to cluster resources around this fast-growing autonomous-technology corridor.

“We’ve built a cluster of innovative organizations that are all aligned to push the future of what is possible in the UAS industry,” said Trevor Woods, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Testing Site.

Existing capabilities of the region’s autonomous technology industry include: the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and their Vantis program, the nation’s only statewide network to operate aerial vehicles beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS); statewide technology deployment for autonomous vehicles; an autonomous farming innovation park; an EDA-funded University Center focused on autonomous system business development; a drone technology business park; a university degree program specifically developed for designing and piloting autonomous vehicles and space-related technologies; and an educational system supporting computer and cyber science from kindergarten to PhD.

“The project is designed to support transformational growth of the entrepreneurial ecosystem by developing world-class startups and increasing venture capital investment,” said Anthony Maher, UND CFI Entrepreneur Lead for Startup Growth & Fundraising.