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UND President Mark Kennedy outlines vision for unmanned aircraft efforts at summit

UND President Mark Kennedy addresses a crowd Aug. 23, 2016, at the 2016 UAS Summit and Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.

If UND President Mark Kennedy has his way, unmanned aircraft systems technology will be a common tool across the university.

Kennedy spoke Tuesday during the 2016 UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks and highlighted what the school has accomplished in terms of the technology and where he would like to see it strengthened.

"UND in my belief should be, among other things, 'Unmanned U,' " he said. "It's one of the core strengths we have. We have a lot of great things we've been involved in and our goal is to continue to be involved in them—and lead them and be the catalyst for growth in this region."

UND is considered the first university to offer a degree program in unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, and Kennedy noted more than 200 students are enrolled in the program as of this fall.

The program has roots in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, where research, education and training efforts are centralized.

The technology has found use elsewhere on campus, with staff members in the school's biology and engineering programs using the aircraft for research efforts.

Opening access to the technology and spreading it across campus is Kennedy's goal. Earlier this summer UAS efforts began reporting to the President's Office through the Division of Research and Economic Development instead of reporting to the aerospace school.

The research division is headed by Grant McGimpsey, who said during a summit panel discussion Tuesday that unmanned aircraft played a large role in bringing him to UND.

"I came to UND about a year ago and I wouldn't be here if not for the promise that UAS provides and the great partnerships that have been described here today," he said.

The university's focus on unmanned systems has strengthened as the industry has quickly expanded in the past several years. In addition to graduating about 100 UAS students since the program was founded in 2009, the university also partners with businesses and public agencies on research projects exploring the use of drones.

To secure a larger piece of the pie, Kennedy noted cooperation with other schools such as Northland Community and Technical College and Lake Region State College is necessary to keep North Dakota at the forefront of the industry.

"The collection of universities in North Dakota has to be tightly woven together to really go after all aspects of how we create this area as the continuing leader in unmanned systems," he said.

Though it is known for its UAS education, UND's campus also has become a hub for commercial efforts, with 24 unmanned aircraft startups renting space in its Center for Innovation.

Bruce Gjovig, CEO of the center, said it has the largest collection of UAS businesses in an tech incubator in the country.

"We have this robust, wonderful place for innovators to really approach and get involved in the UAS industry," he said.

With companies claiming niches within the ecosystem of the center and the overall region, there also an opportunity for collaboration among them.

Whether at the center or in classrooms, Kennedy said he hopes to see students, educators and research partners enhance several areas of the industry ranging from sensor development to the integration of the drones into national airspace to privacy concerns.

"When you look at all the other things in the air, we're going to find the change is not going to be moderated by the degree of the technology," he said. "Our technology is advancing greatly and will continue to advance greatly, but how can we accept that as a society and as a people? Those are the issues that we as a liberal arts university need to continue to focus on."

Brandi Jewett

Brandi Jewett is a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald with beats focusing on northwest Minnesota, unmanned aircraft systems and East Grand Forks city government. A native of Valley City, N.D., 26 years worth of winters haven't scared her out of the state yet. Follow her work at grandforksherald.com, on her blog at droningon.areavoices.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @brandijewett. Send tips and story ideas to bjewett@gfherald.com. 

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