HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Hillsboro administrators want to put their city on the radar.
“We’re trying to promote Hillsboro as that high-tech small town in the Red River Valley,” said Terry Sando, Hillsboro City Commission president and a member of the Hillsboro Economic Development Corporation and Hillsboro Airport Authority.
In December 2018, the Harris UAS, or HubNet, system was deployed near Hillsboro. The network, a project carried out in conjunction with UND, the Northern Plains UAS test site and Harris Corp., is a system of integrated ground infrastructure that allows commercial UAS to fly further and safer beyond visual line of sight in commercial airspaces. The December demonstration showed the network’s ability to provide UAS pilots with the airspace awareness to stay clear of manned aircraft and other objects.
“North Dakota, to the best of my knowledge, employs the only operational network in the world that allows drones to fly safely beyond visual line of sight,” said George Kirov, Harris Corp. commercial UAS Solutions general manager.
Since the demonstration, several companies across the United States and in other countries, including New Zealand, have contacted Kirov about the potential for testing their UAS in the 100-mile UAS corridor that includes Hillsboro, Kirov said. He believes the corridor will only increase in popularity as HubNet proves itself.
“We’ll see more of them trying to come into the area, to locate in the area,” Kirov said.
Hillsboro city officials haven’t limited their interest in promoting the city as a technological center to UAS companies.
When Sando saw vehicles on the screen during the HubNet demonstration in December 2018, he wondered if Hillsboro could be the test site of not only unmanned aerial systems, but also autonomous vehicles
“I thought ‘Ahh, this is perfect,’’ Sando said.
Sando, a retired Air National Guard colonel with aviation experience that includes unmanned aircraft missions, mentioned the idea to Levi Reese, Hillsboro City Commission vice president, who earlier had expressed interest in the city’s potential for using autonomous vehicles. The two talked to the rest of the commission members, who concurred with the idea. This spring, the city applied for a U.S. Department of Transportation grant.
The $9.9 million DOT Automated Driving Systems Demonstration grant would be used to undertake a project that would involve using autonomous vehicles to ferry people who live and work in Hillsboro to their destinations, Sando said. The DOT will announce in August which cities are awarded the grant funding.
If Hillsboro is awarded the grant, the project likely will begin in October and be carried out in three phases, Sando said. During the first phase, Navya, a French company, would test a small 15-passenger electric bus that would travel a two-and-a-half mile route within Hillsboro. During the second phase, a bus would travel between HIllsboro and the American Crystal Sugar Co. plant, transporting workers to and from town.
In the third phase, buses would commute between Fargo and Hillsboro and Grand Forks and Hillsboro, Sando said.
“This would help those people with the commute so they don’t have to drive,” he said.
Navya, meanwhile, would be able to test out its bus in a real-world setting, Sando said..
“What they’re trying to do is get a rural setting that would be applicable for the western part of the United States and Canada,” Sando said.
During the project, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also would test an autonomous Toyota Prius.
“A rural setting is what they were looking at,” Sando said.
One of the things MIT wants to determine is how the autonomous Toyota Prius’ sensor will work on gravel roads, he said.
Besides UAS and autonomous buses and cars, Hillsboro officials also are exploring other ways the city can be a high-tech community. For example, testing of autonomous tractors and other agricultural equipment are another possibility, Sando said. Research shows that two 150-horsepower tractors controlled autonomously would compact the heavy clay soil of the Red River Valley less than one large tractor, Sando said. Reduction in soil compaction would result in stronger plant root systems.
Tractors are not the only agricultural equipment that can be autonomous, Sando said.
“It’s really kind of intriguing. You will find specialty equipment like strawberry pickers,” he said.
The electronic strawberry pickers can do a better job than humans because they do not harm the leaves, he said.