North Dakota has long attracted entrepreneurs to the plains. From advancements in farming to oil recovery techniques, a new idea and technology has found a start in its fertile landscape. Now, a digital, tech-savvy generation is making its way to the state to connect with expertise and excitement as North Dakota positions itself to become the Silicon Valley of the drone industry.
North Dakota is already well positioned as a national hub for the unmanned aerial systems industry. Since being named one of six FAA UAS test sites, start-ups and “big dogs” alike – Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are investing millions in North Dakota and are looking to UAS opportunities in the state.
“North Dakota is not positioning to become a leader, it already is one,” North Dakota Department of Commerce Aerospace Business Development Manager Brian Opp said. “It is the best state to test drones in and has provided more than $36.7 million to advance UAS technology and applications.” Opp points to the fact the state is collaborating with domestic and international organizations to build this emerging industry. “We are becoming the Silicon Valley for drones,” he says.
A growing cluster of UAS research, business and military interests call North Dakota home. Successful partnerships among private businesses, universities and the state continue to strengthen North Dakota’s position as a UAS leader. North Dakota boasts one of the most unencumbered and accessible airspaces in the nation. The state continues to have a strong economy, and businesses and residents are enjoying some of the largest cuts in income and property taxes in the state’s history.
Worldwide annual spending in the UAS industry is expected to exceed $11 billion by 2022, according to research conducted by the Teal Group Corporation. Most spending will occur in research, development, testing, evaluation and procurement, and it will nearly double from $6.6 billion in 2013 to $11.4 billion in 2022.
The First Unmanned Business Park in the U.S.
The first UAS-focused business park in the United States, called Grand Sky, is now open for business in North Dakota. Grand Sky is located on 217 acres of the Grand Forks Air Force Base, just west of the city of Grand Forks. Grand Sky tenants, like Northrop Grumman enjoy access to the Air Force Base’s runway and the ability to launch and recover all classes of UAS. 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.
“The park will offer state-of-the-art facilities for UAS development, testing and training, sensor technology development and data analysis and management,” North Dakota Economic Development & Finance Division Director Paul Lucy said. “It capitalizes on the state’s UAS test site, the expertise of regional academic institutions such as the University of North Dakota’s UAS Center of Excellence, and is an excellent location for the growing cluster of private UAS companies.”
Since becoming the nation’s first operational test site in 2014, North Dakota has attracted investment from leading aerospace companies including General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., Northrop Grumman, the U.S. Air Force and NASA. Entrepreneurs are also finding niches within the industry, along with utility companies — hoping to use UAS technology for monitoring purposes.
“North Dakota is the place for entrepreneurs looking for exciting opportunities in the rapidly-expanding UAS industry,” Opp said. “North Dakota wants them to know that we have the resources and capability to robustly support them in their endeavors.”
Because of North Dakota’s reputation for UAS innovation and location as an FAA test site, the state is already seeing organic growth in startups focused on UAS.
Botlink, a cloud-based operations platform that links drones to industry in real time, is one such success story. Botlink’s platform allows users to capture, process and automatically deliver aerial imagery anywhere, including into existing business software. The company, based in Fargo, also provides automated drone control and safety features such as airspace alerts, manned aircraft avoidance and weather advisories, allowing operators to remain safe and compliant with complex flight regulations.
Opp explains many of North Dakota’s startup companies working in the UAS industry are supported by the University of North Dakota (UND) and its business incubator, the Center for Innovation. UND was the first university to offer a degree program in unmanned aviation in 2009 and has one of the largest university training program available for unmanned aircraft systems.
This includes companies like SkySkopes, Field of View, and EdgeData. All of these companies have been able to take advantage of the forward-thinking UAS resources that are available in North Dakota.
“North Dakota continues to attract innovators in UAS technology, and we welcome the opportunity to foster entrepreneurship here and set the leading example for best practices in this sector,” Lucy said. “You will see the next generation of drone technology developed in North Dakota.”
For more information North Dakota UAS Opportunities, please contact The North Dakota Department of Commerce at 701-328-5300 or visit their website at: http://www.business.nd.gov/aviation/.
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