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UND's unmanned aircraft systems center will report to university president

A UAS hovers at the Grand Sky business park Thursday at the groundbreaking for the new technology park. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Growing interest in unmanned aircraft systems has UND switching up who will oversee the school's academic program and research initiatives that revolve around the technology.

The Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training, which includes the UAS undergraduate degree program, will now report to the president's office through the university's Division of Research and Economic Development.

The move aims to centralize unmanned operations within the campus and open up access to those wishing to use the technology for their research efforts.

"We want to get even more individuals involved across campus, and we also want to use the economic development part of research to pull in other companies to the university as well," UND Provost Thomas DiLorenzo said Wednesday.

UAS education, training and research have been identified as a priority by both interim UND President Ed Schafer and incoming President Mark Kennedy.

"I am proud of our UAS enterprise, which has seen excellent growth under the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Science and in collaboration with other colleges and units on campus," Schafer said in a statement.

The school was the first in the nation to offer a bachelor's degree in unmanned aircraft systems in 2009. Since then, the industry been expanding rapidly, with that trend expected to continue as new regulations for commercial and governmental use of the aircraft are set to become active in late August.

"Unless you are driving forward to capture the very significant opportunity in that space, it's going to slip away from both UND and North Dakota, so that has to be an area of intense focus for the university," Kennedy told the Herald.

Coming together

Another member of the UAS research efforts also will be switching reporting lines.

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site, a state entity housed on campus that conducts research for the university and other clients, also will be overseen by the president's office rather than the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace.

A committee that vets research projects involving UND staff and test site personnel, the UAS Research Ethics and Privacy Committee, already reports to the president through the research division.

"It's a way to pull a few things together and build on our successes and get as many people involved as possible as we move into the future," DiLorenzo said.

The school's training and research efforts in the UAS arena has attracted millions of dollars, including $22.7 million in funding from the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Defense from 2006 to 2011, according to a 2014 report prepared for the North Dakota Legislature.

Including private donations, in-kind services and state funding — about $4.5 million of which was allocated for test site operations — UND received about $70.8 million in that timeframe.

Other research

Within the past four years, dozens of research flights have taken place among several departments, but UND leaders would like to see those numbers expand with the change.

Outside of the UAS center, other departments integrating the aircraft, often called drones, into their research so far include biology and engineering faculty.

Biologists are using unmanned aircraft to count, document and map wildlife and vegetation while mechanical engineers flew aircraft to inspect and photograph the exterior of UND's new medical school building during construction.

For students in the UAS program, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the change shouldn't be noticeable. Since its founding, the program has grown from a handful of students to about 150 enrolled in the 2015 spring semester, according to a UND Institutional Research report.

There is no official effective date for the switch in reporting lines, Johnson said, but conversations to sort out details between administration, research, aerospace and test site personnel will be ongoing.

"We're thrilled with everything the aerospace school has done to this level," DiLorenzo said. "We really believe that they have led the way and will continue to lead the way."

Herald staff writer Wade Rupard contributed to this report.

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