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In Arlington, Va., UND again hosts high-level UAS conference

UND was sole university at second annual UAV Technology USA Conference

Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, gestures as he addresses the second annual UAV Technology USA Conference. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

In Arlington, Va., earlier this month, an elite conference on the topic of uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) drew together senior members from branches of the U.S. military, allied military officers, U.S. government officials, industry representatives – and one university.

That university was UND. Moreover, far from being a “fifth wheel” at the conference, UND was the host, and for the second year in a row.

The second annual UAV technology USA Conference was a meeting ground of leaders in the field of military uses of UAV. There, military leaders discussed not only what projects they were working on but why, as well as the unique needs of each military branch, while government officials spoke on a wide variety of topics from policy to research.

UND hosted last year’s inaugural conference at which President Andrew Armacost served as chair. This year, Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, took on that role. Kraus said the conference was quickly becoming a leading event to discuss the expanding role of UAS in the military.

“One year ago, we gathered in this hotel for the first UAV Technology USA conference,” he said, in his introductory remarks on the first day of the conference. “Based on what we learned then, this second annual event is now one of, if not the leading conference in the U.S., on dedicated uncrewed aerial systems and their evolving role in modern warfare.”

Kraus then worked in a note about Grand Forks and its growing UAS ecosystem, as he frequently did throughout the conference: “If you haven’t been to North Dakota, I encourage you to come and visit. It really is cooler up there,” he said to good-natured chuckles from attendees.

UND connections

The conference revealed several connections either to UND or the greater UAS environment in North Dakota, of which UND is a central component.

For example, one of the speakers on the first day of the conference was Eric Follstad, requirements and technology division chief with the Resources and Analysis Directorate at U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM). Follstad spoke on the role of UAVs in CENTCOM operations and gave advice on how to properly present to the agency for research assistance.

Follstad will attend the Stratospheric Operations and Research Symposium (SOaRS) at UND, which is set for mid-March. The symposium will bring to campus top-level military officers and industry representatives to discuss development of high-altitude and long-distance UAVs, as well as high-altitude pseudo-satellites.

One of the challenges, Follstad said, is training engineers to do that multidisciplinary work in a reasonable amount of time. He said he expects to discuss that work at the symposium.

Col. William T. Collins Jr., with the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, spoke about the need for UAS sensor systems to be “platform agnostic.” Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

Also speaking on the first day was Col. William T. Collins Jr., with the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, who offered praise for the 319th Reconnaissance Wing, stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The 319th oversees the Air Force’s Global Hawk intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission.

GFAFB also hosts the North Spark Defense Laboratory, and in June 2022, UND signed a collaborative agreement that allows faculty, students and staff across the University’s academic departments access to the federal research lab. The goal of the lab is to “spark” innovation in the Air Force — which was also a key takeaway from the conference — and to build the skills needed to develop new technology quickly.

“We are hyper-focused on how we deliver technology not only faster but also more collaboratively, to ensure maximum viability for these UAV platforms for the U.S. and for our international partners,” said Collins.

GFAFB is also home to the nation’s latest foray into space research, and hosts the Space Development Agency’s Space Networking Center, which was christened in July 2022. UND will support the SDA’s low-earth-orbit satellite mission there through research and education at its Satellite Design & Engineering and Satellite Fabrication & Assembly labs.

The labs are part of the University’s National Security Initiative, which seeks to build on existing strengths and expand UND’s capacity to pursue, secure and execute projects with federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security.

From science fiction to reality at UND

While discussion at the conference focused on near-term UAS development, it also touched on technology that might emerge in a few decades — technology that sounds almost Star Trek-like in concept.

Col. Paul Calhoun, program manager with the Tactical Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), discussed the idea of a flying web of drones that are powered by “beaming” energy to each drone in the network. The long-endurance flying network would be able to disassemble should it come under attack, then reassemble to carry out whatever mission it is involved in.

The network of drones would have the advantage of not relying on transporting fossil fuels across the planet to monitor a situation or having to rely on low-capacity batteries.

Though it is a long way from the design board to being put into use, Calhoun said the web will be a game changer in UAS operations.

“Whoever gets this first will have a huge advantage,” he said.

During a brief intermission, and when asked about the idea of “power beaming,” Kraus quickly replied, “Guess where that work will be done? Grand Forks, North Dakota.”

Attendees listen to a presenter at the second annual UAV Technology USA Conference in Arlington, Va. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

An important takeaway

In his presentation, Col. Collins, with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, discussed the need to deliver UAS technology more rapidly to military members who need it. But a key component of future UAS designs will be adaptability.

That means developing “platform agnostic” sensors and equipment that easily can be transferred from one type of UAS to another. The idea of adaptability came up frequently throughout the two-day conference.

“Imagine a world in which a combat commander needs a particular type of (Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance) capability, a particular type of ISR data set,” Collins said. “We can provide the ability to swap out rapidly, pods or sensor technology on different platforms to get the data that warfighters and mission partners need, much faster than we have been in the past.”

Ample reasons to visit

Throughout the conference, Kraus frequently spoke about research and educational opportunities at UND and in Grand Forks, as did others. Lt. Col. Julien Letarte, with the Royal Canadian Air Force, said the very first crews of a new Arctic mission will do their UAS pilot training in Grand Forks. They’ll take that knowledge with them back to Canada, to train other RCAF pilots.

Kraus also said the upcoming SOaRS conference and the annual UAS Summit & Expo are reasons enough to explore the rich UAS ecosystem in the region.

“If you’re looking for a reason to come and see what’s going on in Grand Forks, N.D., with our team, all of the industry partners that are up in that area, all of the military groups that are up there and government groups that are there, I encourage you to look into this UAS summit,” Kraus said.

Attending the conference with Kraus were Mark Askelson, associate vice president for national security research; Ryan Adams, associate dean for National Security; Robbie Lunney, assistant professor of Aviation; and members of the University’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems.