North Dakota leads the UAS industry as the drone test state

Bismarck, ND – Yesterday, February 12, approximately 85 leaders in the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) industry around the country came together for UAS Industry Day, to discuss how North Dakota is moving forward as one the best places to test, develop, and commercialize within the UAS industry.

UAS industry

Governor Jack Dalrymple

North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple announced two grants for $2.5 million each that will be offered as an incentive for those who would like to advance within the UAS industry. He also extended an open invitation for those interested in the industry to meet with him at the capitol building.

“My office is open,” he said. “Take advantage of that. You’d be surprised if you walked into my office, we’d set you up with a meeting right then and there.”

North Dakota is the drone test state.

Legally test flying drones is now more plausible than ever, according to Robert Becklund, Executive Director of Northern Plains UAS Test Site. On February 11, they successfully achieved FAA approval to test fly drones in the northeastern part of North Dakota. Approval was granted “because of our demonstrated capabilities and materials,” Becklund said.

The FAA approval, which will open up two-thirds of North Dakota to drone testing, earned an article on the globally popular tech news site Tech Crunch, in which they refer to ND as “the drone test state.”

In addition to meeting FAA regulations, Becklund also said that North Dakota’s 4 season climate and unencumbered airspace are beneficial for test flights.

“We can fly almost anywhere,” Becklund said.

Nd UAS industry

Backyard resources: energy, ag, & research.

Another perk for the North Dakota drones is that they can be used in collaboration with the two other mega-giants driving the state: energy and agriculture. Doug Goehring, Commissioner of North Dakota Department of Agriculture, traced back through the advancements seen in agriculture – from the plow to the GPS – showing how this tech has advanced more in the past two decades than ever before.

“Now think about what you could do with a drone!” he said. (Hint hint: Check out Vine Rangers).

Ron Ness, President of North Dakota Petroleum Council, also gave an energy outlook for the state claiming that despite the drops in oil prices, they will continue to drive forward and consistently look for ways to invest in and partner with UAS technology.

“I hope that we find some partnerships with your technology,” he said. “It just takes that right moment and something will click.”

Representatives for University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University outlined how North Dakota’s two research-giants are taking steps forward in the UAS industry as well, focusing on retaining students and fueling research by providing a wealth of funds and resources.

“We want to incubate, accelerate, and commercialize,” said Michael Moore, the Associate Vice President of Intellectual Property Commercialization at UND.

America’s first unmanned airport.

Uas industry

Another big announcement came from Tom Swoyer, the President of Grand Sky Development Company, who announced that the first unmanned (UAS) airport in the United States, called Grand Sky, is now open for business right here in North Dakota.

Grand Sky operates 217 acres in Grand Forks, ND, which includes an Air Force runway that is a registered Northern Plains FAA test site. The full package includes safe airspace to test fly, connection to local investors interested in the UAS industry, and access to a UAS data communication infrastructure.

“We’re more than a place, we’re a concept,” Swoyer said.

Grand Sky is now actively looking for partners to work and invest with – along with many other open positions like UAS operators and developers (check it out here.)

Price ranges for operating within Grand Sky depend on how much land and infrastructure you wish to use, Swoyer said. Three sites have already been staked out by companies looking to set up camp in Grand Sky facilities.

Show me the money.

Of course, like any industry with a lot of room to grow, one also needs the funds to grow.

“I apologize in advance that this information is not nearly as sexy or interesting as the drones,” said Paul Lucy, ‎Director of Economic Development & Finance at North Dakota Department of Commerce, as he launched into his overview of the funding provided by North Dakota.

Maybe not sexy, but helpful nonetheless. Lucy covered four major financial programs that can aid startups looking to get funding: The Match Program, The Partnership in Assisting Community Expansion (PACE) loan, the Department of Commerce Office gap financing program, and the New Venture Capital Program.

In addition, Lucy said, the state also offers multiple tax exemptions for startups and corporations. And if your research qualifies for the Research ND program – which means your research must show a path to commercialization – you can qualify for a grant that matches every dollar you put into the research.

However, Lucy cautioned applicants about the nuances that accompany the applications for these grants. If you don’t apply in the right sequence, you jeopardize your eligibility for the grant, he said. His advice is that you reach out and contact the Department of Commerce, and let them set you up with the correct plan.

“You should not ever hesitate to give us a call. We will help you, that is what we are there to do,” Lucy said. “Growth is not developed through a bunch of bureaucrats sitting around trying to decide what a business needs, it’s through businesses coming to us and telling us what they need.”

The power of the private sector.

UAS industry

Botlink CEO Shawn Muehler pitches at UAS industry day.

Interspersed throughout these presentations, Brian Opp, Manager of Aerospace Business Development at North Dakota Department of Commerce, introduced individuals from the private sectors of North Dakota’s drone industry.

Pitches were given by the CEOs of Packet Digital, Smart C2, Field of View, ComDel Innovations, University of North Dakota EERC, Unmanned Applications Institution International, Ideal Aerosmith, and Botlink.

The ideas presented spanned everywhere from Packet Digital’s research towards creating an “endless energy drone” with solar energy, to Ideal Aerosmith’s motion stimulator test systems.

Opp’s intent in having these impromptu presentations, he said, was to show how the private sector is the key to driving the industry forward. And these startups represent only a handful of all the private companies currently growing North Dakota’s UAS industry, he said.

Leading the UAS industry: proud to be North Dakotan.

Each North Dakota native speaker had a few tongue-in-cheek North Dakota jokes to share – about the weather, the quiet mentality, the weather…

But North Dakota Lieutenant-Governor Drew Wrigley said that in spite of the climate, North Dakota is currently the leader when it comes to UAS industry – and it is certainly the best state to test drones. And that’s sayin’ something.

“As a North Dakotan, I’m proud to see our state as a leader in this advancing (UAS) industry,” he said. “We think the future is extremely bright.”

Photos courtesy of Marisa Jackels and Grand Sky Development Co.

Marisa Jackels

Marisa Jackels

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