On June 3, 2015, over 130 attendees gathered at the Fargo Jet Center for Fargo’s first annual Drone Focus Conference, organized by Botlink and Emerging Prairie, and powered by RDO Integrated Controls.
Stepping into the new hangar at Fargo Jet Center, one felt immediately transported to the future; large sheer drapes separated the conference section from the rest of the expansive all-white room, illuminated with blue lights (courtesy of killer lighting by Livewire).
A gated space labeled “Practice Area” stood to the left, equipped with tiny drones. To the right was a “Dueling Drones” area, set up by Grand Forks startup Field of View. In between speakers, small drones whirred and blinked as attendees flew practice rounds and tested out controls.
The speakers themselves brought a variety of perspectives from all segments of the UAS industry. Attendees varied from students, curious locals, pilots, engineers, farmers, developers, legislators, and anyone else interested in the rapidly unfolding drone industry in North Dakota. As Fargo Jet Center President Jim Sweeney said, “Everybody is represented here today.”
Bob Becklund, Executive Director of the North Dakota UAS Test Site, said that a conference like this in Fargo is not only exciting, but a necessity.
“We have conferences like this elsewhere, but never before in Fargo,” he said. “It really is required.”
Becklund presented a UAS Test Site 101 course to attendees, highlighting how their strong relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can be used as a benefit to anyone in the industry.
“We’re in a position to define this path with the FAA,” Becklund said. “We are in a position to help connect the industry directly with the FAA. Wether it’s in standards, or airworthiness, or training, we have the capability to help you.”
Matt Hayes of RDO Technologies took the stage next, showcasing some of their latest drone technology which utilizes 2D and 3D mapping. He presented the eBee, a fully autonomous fixed wing drone that specializes in mapping terrain. Through live simulations, he walked the crowd through the capabilities of these drones in mapping anything from stockpiles to corn fields, and then using infrared and 3D rendering to gather specific data on the land.
In a similar vein, Dr. John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine systems specialist with North Dakota State University, followed with a presentation on how unmanned aircraft systems are used in crop and livestock production. What he sees in the industry, he said, is a hesitancy for farmers to adopt the technology due to lack of research.
“Before this industry can do everything it says it’s going to do, it needs more research,” he said.
He extended an invitation to collaborate with NDSU on conducting further research – particularly in areas where he sees challenges, such as image degradation and data management.
Shawn Muehler and Terri Zimmerman, COO and CEO of the newly launched (as of Wednesday) Botlink LLC, also did a live interview about their new platform, its capabilities, and how they envision the future of the drone industry.
“Drone Focus Conference 2016, what do you see?” asked Greg Tehven, moderator.
“We hope to see Botlink capture the market share,” Zimmerman said. “And we want to double the attendance here.”
The last speaker was Jinger Zeng, co-founder and COO of Las Vegas based startup, Skyworks Aerial Systems. She and her team have created an educational build-your-own drone kit called Eedu, that is designed to train kids from 9-12 in drone assembly, capability, and in coding software geared for drones.
“When you think about it, they are the future who will be running the drone industry” Zeng said.
Zeng originally met Muehler at the North Dakota UAS Industry Day, was impressed with North Dakota’s momentum, and had no hesitancy in flying to Fargo for this conference.
“I love the ‘make-things-happen’ vibe here,” she said.
Skyworks recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for $100,000; already they have $10,608 with 25 days remaining. Check it out here!
After Zeng’s presentation, things got lively. Live camera footage from a GoPro within the Drone Dueling cage filled the screen, where drone pilots tried to knock down each others drones. On the other end of the hangar, newbies dabbling in the drone field got to try their hand at drone piloting (including yours truly – my flight may or may not have involved a drone leaping several feet in to the air and then, in a panic, cutting the motor and hitting the floor.)
Shane Neuerberg, an aviation enthusiast who attended because of his intrigue in drones, was among those first-timers.
“I just a flew a drone for the first time, so that’s pretty cool,” he said.
It was certainly a good day for Terri Zimmerman, who started the day by announcing her joint venture Botlink, threw down some drones in a dueling match, and ended by getting her name pulled from a hat and winning a Blade Glimpse HD Camera Drone, valued at $179.
With the drones whirring and humming in the background, attendees wrapped up the night with an open bar serving wine and Fargo Brewing Company beer, with food like turkey-wrapped shrimp and chocolate truffles from Mosaic (lunch was provided by Smiling Moose.)
Drone Focus Conference 2016 is already in the works, Tehven announced at the event. It will be held on June 1, 2016, and the main keynote already confirmed is Lisa Ellman, Obama’s former law student who is now hailed as “Queen of the Drones” for her efforts in achieving FAA exemptions.
For Fargo’s debut Drone Focus Conference, organized in less than a month, the planning committee agreed that this was a big success.
“Two weeks ago we had 8 people signed up,” Tehven said, recounting the planning process. “This community rallied together and we made this happen.”
Brian Opp from the North Dakota Department of Commerce said at the start of the event that seeing this kind of enthusiasm is a testament to North Dakota’s commitment to drive the drone industry forward. Now, we just need to keep it going, he said.
“Let’s make this a state where companies can’t afford NOT to do business,” he said.
More coverage on the Drone Focus Conference:
Photo courtesy of Mark Staples and Marisa Jackels.