Drones took the stage at 1 Million Cups last Wednesday morning, but the drone talk didn’t stop there. Later that day, January 13, 2015, a group of individuals involved with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) from across North Dakota (and some from out of state), gathered at the Radisson hotel for “Let’s Talk Drones,” a meet-up organized by Botlink CEO Shawn Muehler and Emerging Prairie co-founder Greg Tehven.
Among those represented at the table were the North Dakota Department of Commerce, NASA Small Business Innovation and Research Program, the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation, University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University Research Park, Appareo Systems, Comdel Innovations, Snowy Owl Productions, Emerging Prairie, and VineRangers. Each individual brought their expertise to the table, whether it was the UND students currently working on a project involving drones or North Dakota state’s senior managers involved in the UAS industry.
“This is what we need to see in this market, is bringing people together and talking about how we can actually drive the industry forward,” Muehler said. “Really what we want is to see companies opening up to other companies.”
Right away, Mike Vinje from NASA brought up UAV Digest, a weekly podcast which he finds to be the best source of information regarding unmanned aerial vehicles and systems. He recommended that someone in the room reach out to them to be featured on their podcast, as a way to generate more publicity for the work being done here.
“Get those guys to come up here, and I think you would position yourself right in front,” Vinje said. “You’ll probably get on for four or five different episodes, and you’re going to get blasted across the planet.”
This is something Muehler thinks is exactly what the state needs to be doing, and plans are being made to act on the recommendation.
The main question tackled at the hour and a half long lunch was how to navigate flying, testing, and developing drone technology within rigid Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. The general consensus was that, as a field that is still very much in-the-works, the FAA is struggling to create UAS guidelines that are strict enough to prevent accidents, but not so much that they inhibit progress.
In this, Brian Opp, Manager of Aerospace Business Development at North Dakota Department of Commerce, offered to help. As a state, he said, North Dakota has already invested nearly $20 million into UAS over the past decade and hopes to continue to be a leader in the industry; part of this is working closely with North Dakota’s UAS industry leaders to work through government regulations.
David Baeza, founder and CEO of VineRangers – a startup that is researching how drones can help solve farming problems – also proposed contacting Lisa Ellman, a lawyer based in Washington, DC who is currently helping him work to obtain hard-to-earn exemptions from the FAA. Ellman is quickly becoming well known for her ability to cut through the layers of red tape from the FAA, even earning the nickname “Queen of the Drones.”
Muehler is experiencing the struggle with FAA firsthand, as Botlink prepares to make their product available.
“We have an e-mail list waiting for people that want our technology, but it’s just a matter of the flight testing part that we’re struggling with right now,” he said. “How can we break through those barriers?”
The question still stands, but for Muehler meet-ups and conversations like this one are the first steps to finding solutions.
“We want to put a spark in the industry in North Dakota,” he said.
Plans for the meet-up began after 1 Million Cups, he said – specifically after he connected with Baeza and agreed to start building software for Vine Rangers. The partnership caused him to ask, “Why don’t we do this in the local industry?”
“Just one connection right there is going to make a future product,” he said. “So now what if we we bring all the connections in North Dakota UAS together, see what kind of products get made and create value within North Dakota?”
He and Tehven are hoping to have a Let’s Talk Drones meet-up every month, in a similar style to 1 Million Cups. After this first event, it was clear to Muehler that these conversations are needed. Guests lingered long after the lunch finished, continuing the conversation and exchanging business cards.
“I think the industry is too afraid to get everyone into one room to talk, and I think this is a platform where people can get together and hash out the details without all the red tape,” Muehler said.
Photos by Marisa Jackels