UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

From monoculture to rich UAS ecosystem

UAS’s breathtaking growth in Grand Forks yields individual, institutional and national-security advantages, experts say


Lt. Col. Michael Dunn, director of the North Spark Defense Laboratory at Grand Forks Air Force Base, calls attention to innovators such as the Wright Brothers during a recent talk at the UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks. UND is among the North Spark lab’s key partners. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

In 2000, according to Newslibrary.com, the word “unmanned” appeared in the Grand Forks Herald only eight times.

Contrast that with 2021, when 67 stories featured the word, plus dozens more stories that reported on UAS, UAVs or other variations on the theme.

And make no mistake, the growth of the now-robust ecosystem that the above trend represents matters not just for UND and Grand Forks, but also for the national security of the United States, said Lt. Col. Michael Dunn, director of the North Spark Defense Laboratory at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“If the Air Force wants to keep pace with China and Russia, the service must partner with industries large and small to implement the best technology,” Dunn said.

And regarding one of aviation’s most crucial areas of technology, “Grand Forks, N.D., is perfectly situated to be the center of autonomous UAS operations in the United States.” UND’s presence is central to that effort, as the University offers not only a “world-famous, top-tier aviation program,” but also a pioneering UAS specialty, Dunn said.

“The expertise that the faculty and students at UND bring to the UAS ecosystem here in Grand Forks is a huge asset,” he noted.

Dunn spoke last week at the 16th Annual UAS Summit & Expo, a national conference held at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Over the course of the conference, he and other speakers noted Grand Forks and UND’s high standing in the industry – a status that’s built on local leaders’ conscious decisions to hitch key investments to a rising technological star.

Moderated by Mark Askelson (left), associate vice president for national security research at UND, a panel featuring aerospace-school deans and a UAS industry expert was a highlight of last week’s UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks. Pictured from left are Askelson; Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at UND; Matthew MacVicar, manager of government relations for Rolls-Royce North America; and Kenneth Witcher, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Not your parents’ college experience

Take the way UAS at UND has evolved from being a startup program – first offered in 2009 as the nation’s first undergraduate major in the field – to a robust, dynamic and fully integrated component of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

At the conference, Aerospace Dean Robert Kraus appeared on a unique panel that also featured Kenneth Witcher, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and Matthew MacVicar, manager of government relations for Rolls-Royce North America.

Workforce concerns topped the list of priorities for the panelists, with the deans focused on graduating qualified UAS professionals and the Rolls-Royce executive concentrating on attracting them. But it’s worth noting how rich and multifaceted that training has become, deans Witcher and Kraus both said.

For example, UND students now have options beyond traditional internships to get real-world experience. The Center for Innovation at the University hosts a legion of UAV startups, where students can work and solve problems right alongside the company’s CEO. Larger companies sometimes turn to UND classrooms for help, with the result that Aviation Safety students give presentations not only to each other but also to executives from Delta, among other airlines.

(At Embry-Riddle, similar programs have faculty and students solving problems for a host of organizations, Witcher said. For example, Embry-Riddle helps lead an effort to use drones to track Burmese pythons in the Everglades. The giant snakes – which have no natural predators in the Everglades, have decimated the wetlands’ wildlife and now number in the tens of thousands, at least – can at times be spotted and tracked by drones carrying near-infrared cameras and sensors.

(Clearly, “there are very interesting problems that can be solved by UAS technology,” Witcher said. “It makes it a ton of fun.”)

Also, UND’s UAS faculty and staff now are turning their eyes to the next generation of operators – namely, students in high schools and middle schools around the region. With that in mind, an effort to get North Dakota high schools involved in a Drone Racing League now is underway, Kraus said.

And UND’s partnership with North Dakota State University on the Grand Farm project shows the work being done with the agricultural industry.

Speaking of partnerships, they’re critical to the Air Force’s ongoing effort to innovate, Dunn said in his talk. As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown put it in a recent report, “We must move with a purpose – we must Accelerate Change or Lose.”

The power of the rebel

The North Spark Defense Laboratory at Grand Forks Air Force Base is meant to do just that. Designated as a federal research laboratory, North Spark is authorized to partner with educational institutions to encourage the study of science, mathematics and engineering at all levels of education. UND and North Spark already have signed such an agreement; the two entities are working together to create programming, and students will be able to receive academic credit for their efforts.

North Spark also is partnering with companies around the region to implement advanced technology, Dunn said.

In the Air Force, “we require a Billy Mitchell-level of zealotry and passion to pivot to autonomous systems,” Dunn said. He was referring to the U.S. Army general whose post-World War I advocacy of air power actually brought about his court-martial, but who today is regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force.

“We have to be able to operate at machine speed,” Dunn said. Again, he pointed to the Grand Forks UAS ecosystem – as new as it is – as being ideally suited to doing just that.

“At Grand Forks Air Force Base, we’ve been flying largely autonomous systems for almost 10 years,” he said. “There’s a ton of autonomous experience that sits inside the walls at the base.”

Likewise, “we have in Grand Sky the world’s only air park dedicated to UAS operations. That provides us with a lot of connectivity to industry partners, who are like-minded and implementing some of the most cutting-edge technologies in the UAS world.”

So, “academic and industry partners,” Dunn said, “I’m going to challenge you to partner with us at Grand Forks Air Force Base to see the future of autonomy and UAS operations. … We can’t keep pace with Russia and China without the patriotic men and women who are sitting in this auditorium today. We need your expertise.”

Said Dunn in conclusion, “I can tell you Grand Forks Air Force Base is fully committed to being a partner with industry and academia, now and as we pivot into the future of what’s next. We have that Billy Mitchell mindset – so don’t underestimate the power of the rebel, the rule breaker, the innovator or the American airman.”