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December 19, 2014

Startups Will Star as North Dakota Drone Summit Explores Commercialization

For drone enthusiasts, Grand Forks, N.D., will be the place to be this week, as the state hosts its eighth annual summit featuring Federal Aviation Administration officials as well as speakers from Northrop Grumman and an array of smaller companies in the fledgling unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry.

Danny Ellis, a spokesman for an Ann Arbor, Mich., start-up called SkySpecs, who’ll be speaking at the summit, said his firm is developing small aerial systems “with a focus on advanced intelligence for applications requiring immediate obstacle avoidance. Our first market and customer is in wind turbine blade inspection.”

The firm, with nine full-time employees, all graduates of the University of Michigan, recently won a $150,000 National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to do work on solving the sense and avoid problem for small unmanned aerial systems, Ellis said. The company’s first commercial devices will be available by the end of this year.

Another summit speaker, Zach Lamppa, the president of North Dakota-based firm Energy Intelligence, will be discussing how unmanned aerial systems can be used for inspecting oil and gas pipelines.

Al Palmer, the director of the University of North Dakota’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training, who’ll also be speaking at the three-day summit, said he expected “a lot of focus on commercialization. I think for the industry to grow, we need to commercialize; very similar to what the airplane did after World War I — a great weapons system, but aviation didn’t come into its own until it was commercialized.”

Last year the FAA chose North Dakota as one of six UAS sites around the country to do research on how to integrate drones into the nation’s airspace.

“The test site is leveraging North Dakota State University research and University of North Dakota’s experience in aerospace, and our expectation is that we will continue doing research after the February 2017 mandate for the test site to shut down,” Palmer said.

Since 2003 the University of North Dakota has carried out nearly $60 million in research on UAS, with funding from federal, state and private sources, he said.

The university launched the nation’s first four-year degree program in unmanned aircraft systems in 2009 with five students. Now there are more than 130 enrolled.

Last week the FAA announced that the fourth of the six UAS test sites, at the Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, became operational. Its missions will include monitoring wetlands along the Padre Island National Seashore and research on tracking tropical storms.

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