To comprehend the importance of the UAS industry in North Dakota, Sen. John Hoeven believes that you need look no farther than your own pocket.

“Look at all of the things you have on your cell phone,” he said. There is likely a navigation system, a camera, and a woman named Siri to tell you everything you need to know.

“Now look at where we were even ten years ago with cell phones,” he said. “That’s how technology is. It continues to advance, and the key is, we want to be a part of that.”

When Hoeven visited Fargo in November to speak at Drone Focus Monthly, he referred to North Dakota as the “leader of the pack” in terms of the UAS industry. Seven months later, that lead seems to be growing even stronger.

New legislation

In November, Hoeven shared his hope that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization would be passed within the next year. In April, his wish came true.

The FAA Reauthorization bill, passed by Congress in February 2012, included an amendment introduced by Hoeven that allowed the establishment of six UAS test sites. The primary goal of these sites, including the Northern Plains UAS test site in Grand Forks, was to promote the integration of UAS into the National Airspace.

“Getting manned and unmanned vehicles in the same airspace,” Hoeven said. “That’s the big kahuna.”

The catch was that these sites could only be authorized for five years– meaning that all testing would halt on September 30, 2017.

The bill that was passed by the Senate this April includes two new amendments by Hoeven: one which will extend congressional authorization for the test sites for an additional five years, and a second which will strengthen UAS research programs, including the FAA’s Center of Excellence on UAS (COE), which is led by the University of North Dakota and Mississippi State University.

This May, Hoeven was also instrumental in the Senate’s passing of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Act (THUD). The bill will provide $18.4 million for UAS research, including $10 million to the COE. It will also direct the FAA and the COE to use the UAS test sites when conducting their research, including research into unmanned traffic management systems in coordination with NASA.

A cluster of technology

Both THUD and the FAA Reauthorization bill, if passed by the House, will be integral to Hoeven’s ongoing effort to attract tech companies to the region.

“What we want is to have both established companies and new entrepreneurs all clustered in the Red River Valley developing the future of unmanned aviation,” Hoeven said.

North Dakota is already home to UAS startups like Botlink, Flight Pros, and Launchboxx; now these young entrepreneurs are being joined by some bigger names.

In the fall of 2015, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA‑ASI) broke ground on the Grand Sky facility, the country’s first commercial UAS business and aviation park, adjacent to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. GrandSky serves as the base of operations for  GA-ASI’s Predator and Reaper aircraft, which are used by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and North Dakota Air National Guard.

In October, Northrop Grumman became the first company to sign a lease agreement with the park. Northrop Grumman is a global security company and the producer of the Global Hawk UAV, which is also used at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

And it’s not just aviation that Hoeven sees for North Dakota’s future; he also hopes to see this collaboration between startups and established companies result in advancement in fields like software development and information management.

“Tech entrepreneurship… I see that as the next big thing for us,” he said.

Hoeven will be providing a welcome at Drone Focus 2016, and sees the event as an opportunity to “help empower the amazing young entrepreneurs we have in the valley.” Representatives from NASA and Northrup Grumman will sit beside startup founders and drone enthusiasts, sharing ideas and developing new uses for UAS. Hoeven is excited to see what they come up with.

With UAS, he says, as with cell phones a decade ago,

“There are things we haven’t even thought of yet.”

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Katie Beedy