If you mention the phrase “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS) to most people, will they immediately think of the stereotypes surrounding drones?  Invasion of privacy is the biggest one.  The other is that of aircraft used by the military.  Although drones can be used to both of those ends, drones have a much wider practicality than spying on or attacking people!Emerging Prairie is an organization formed in 2013 to “connect and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Fargo-Moorhead.”  They are responsible for organizing a variety of events that support their mission including Drone Focus, Prairie Den coworking space, and 1 Million Cups Fargo.  Drone Focus 2017 was held March 31st and again on June 1st to provide a space for entrepreneurs, business experts, and government officials to gather and discuss the rapidly expanding drone industry.

North Dakota at Center Stage in the Drone Revolution

The conference began with opening remarks from several high-ranking government officials including Secretary of the Department of Transportation Elaine Chao, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.  The common theme running in the speeches was twofold: that the drone industry is changing at an unprecedented rate, and that North Dakota is at the forefront of that evolution.

Hoeven, Chao, and Burgum image by J. Alan Paul Photography & Emerging Prairie

“We are advancing UAS operations here in North Dakota unlike anywhere else in the nation,” Hoeven said.  “Now that we have secured authorization for beyond-line-of-sight flights, it is vital that federal agencies are able to keep up with the innovations of industry and our state stays on the cutting-edge of UAS applications, including low-altitude beyond-line-of-sight flights and counter UAS operations.”

According to Hoeven, North Dakota has been working with UAS since 2005.  “I’m excited about the progress we’ve made,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of firsts.”  The senator referenced the state’s Northern Plains Test Site, the first site in the nation to fly beyond visual-line-of-sight, as well as the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s work with the Predator and Reaper drones.  Hoeven believes that the next new “first” will be in low-altitude product delivery, technology that could be used by companies like Amazon.  “Let’s develop it right here in the Red River Valley,” Hoeven encouraged. “We will compete with anyone, anywhere.”

Senator Hoeven discussed having brought Secretary Chao to the conference so she could “see firsthand our unique convergence of military, government and private UAS operations.  By connecting her with our UAS leaders, we can help advance the integration of this technology into our airspace and continue strengthening our leadership in this emerging industry.”

The evolution of the drone industry is not without its difficulties, however.  Secretary Chao discussed some of the challenges that will undoubtedly occur as drone use becomes more prevalent.  “The integration of drones into our national airspace will be the biggest technological challenge to aviation since the beginning of the Jet Age,” she said.  “Our job is to prepare the way for this new technology, so it can be deployed safely and usher in a new era of aviation service, accessibility, and ingenuity.”

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How Do We Find Room for Everyone?

Chao addressed the issues of privacy and the congestion of airspace in particular.  More people than ever are traveling by air, and the addition of drones to this already overfilled space is an area of great concern.  The use of drones for both commercial and personal use has skyrocketed in a very short time.  On December 14th, 2015, The Federal Aviation Administration issued a rule requiring all UAS weighing more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds to be registered using a new online system.  By December 31th, 2016, over 626,000 owner-hobbyists had registered their UAS.  Since then, average registration has been between 5,000 and 7,000 new systems per week.  The FAA forecasts that the hobbyist fleet will triple in size over the next five years, from an estimated 1.1 million units in 2017 to 3.5 in 2021.

On the commercial side of UAS, the fleet currently stands at an estimated 42,000.  That number could rise as much as tenfold by 2021.  Of the commercial drones currently registered, 34% are used for aerial photography; 26% for real estate; 26% for construction, industrial, or utility inspections; 21% for agriculture; 8% for emergency management; and 5% for insurance (with some overlap).  As new applications of drone technology increase, so too will the number of UAS in the air, which could lead to serious problems.  Chao advocated for the continued development of UAS technology “while maintaining the safety the public demands and deserves.”

Don’t Spy on Me!

Privacy is also an issue, both in regard to drone users and the public.  “The key issue in the regulation of drones is security,” Chao explained.  “Officials need to be able to get the information they need without violating the rights of the owner.”  Chao reassured the crowd that safety and security are priorities for the Department of Transportation.  “We want to encourage innovation and preserve creativity,” she said, “but we need to provide some guidelines in how to deal with this brave new world we are approaching.”

The issue of privacy has always been a central concern within the drone industry.  Ensuring that UAS technology is used for the progression of society and not for illegal or immoral purposes was a hot topic at the conference.  To that end, Governor Burgum announced the creation of a task force dedicated to supporting the development of technologies to detect UAS and counter nefarious use of the technology.

“North Dakota has already staked a position at the forefront of UAS applications and testing, with the state investing $43 million into advancing UAS research and development,” Burgum said.  “This task force underscores our commitment to investigating UAS detection and countermeasures for the safety of our citizens and our airspace, as well as opportunities to further diversify our economy.”

National Autonomous Vehicle Day

At the conference, Marlo Anderson from the National Day Calendar proclaimed May 31st National Autonomous Vehicle Day in order to “celebrate the advances in the autonomous vehicle industry and the potential opportunities for business and technology growth related to this phenomenal concept.” “North Dakota leads the world in UAV development,” Anderson said. “We are all very excited about what’s going on in North Dakota.”

Although the thought of mainstream autonomous vehicles may seem like something out of The Jetsons, they will become a reality sooner rather than later — The Brookings Institution estimates that one quarter of all cars will be autonomous by the year 2040.  It is an area of technology that the state of North Dakota is embracing.  “We have a chance in North Dakota to be one of the smartest places in the world,” Governor Burgum said.  “Autonomous vehicles are coming and we are open for business.  We must embrace these technologies, because the future is coming faster than we understand.”


By Jamee Larson