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State, local leaders celebrate $33 million investment in drones in Grand Forks

(From left) Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, Rep. Mark Sanford, R-Grand Forks, Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, Nicholas Flom, Executive Director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, Secretary of Commerce Michelle Kommer, Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks and Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, react to the “ceremonial signing” of House Bill 1018. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

With its airport, Air Force base and college aerospace program, the Grand Forks region has celebrated several takeoffs and landings over the years. On Monday, leaders of the local unmanned aerial systems sector celebrated another takeoff as they gathered to celebrate a $33 million investment in North Dakota's UAS and drone industry.

Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford and various other government officials held a ceremonial signing of House Bill 1018, which appropriates $28 million toward a statewide air traffic control system for unmanned aircraft, $3 million toward upgrading UAS infrastructure and $2 million toward operations at the region's Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

"Major investments like this scream to the rest of the nation and the entire world that cutting-edge UAS research, testing and commercialization is cleared for takeoff in North Dakota," said Sanford, who also chairs the Northern Plains UAS Test Site Authority.

It was previously announced that Gov. Doug Burgum himself would be at the ceremony to "sign" HB 1018, which he officially signed last week. Spokesman Mike Nowatzki said Burgum was unable to attend because he was feeling "under the weather."

Variable climates, many uses

According to Sanford, North Dakota is the perfect "proving grounds" for the nation's UAS industry due to its "open skies and variable climate."

But the state also offers a multitude of applications, said Northern Plains UAS Test Site Director Nicholas Flom, ranging from agriculture to emergency response, from monitoring major utility lines to collecting data.

"Imagine if we could've sent a drone out to search a larger area while we were out looking for Olivia Lone Bear," Flom said, referring to a 32-year-old mother found last summer in a truck in Lake Sakakawea. "Imagine if we could've deployed drones after that tornado in Watford City last summer, (or) for post-storm damage assessment, to get power back on sooner. Imagine preventing an oil leak through routine inspections in the Bakken, using drones."

Both Sanford and Flom touted the state's existing infrastructure of public and private entities that have made their mark in the UAS world, including the state's universities, its military bases and state agencies.

'We are in a race'

Leaders who spoke at Monday's ceremony commended these groups and their work in Grand Forks, referring to this investment as yet another milestone in the state's race to be the best.

"Make no mistake about it," said Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We are in a race, a race we cannot win with money alone. To be number one, you have to think ahead and you must be unified. We have done that."

According to Holmberg, the state has been focused on UAS development for five legislative sessions and the tenure of three governors.

In 2015, local leaders broke ground on Grand Sky, the nation's first private business park for unmanned aircraft. Today the park, adjacent to Grand Forks Air Force Base, is home to sites for defense contractors Northrop Grumman and General Atomics.

In May 2018, the federal government chose North Dakota as one of 10 sites in its federal UAS Integration Pilot Program. In July, the first trans-Atlantic flight of a medium-altitude, long-endurance UAS took off from Grand Sky, and in August, the first UAS to fly beyond the visual line of sight without a chase plane launched from the same park. That type of flight requires special FAA-permission, which the state hopes to one day permanently secure through the air traffic control system that now is on its way to Grand Forks.

"This will include a surveillance system that will assure a drone will not interfere with existing manned aircraft traffic," said Flom.

These miles and the state's most recent investments—totaling approximately $77 million, according to a statement from Burgum's office—are just a testament to the state's longer history of innovation, according to state Secretary of Commerce Michelle Kommer.

"The leadership and energy and spirit of innovators has positioned us to be one of the top states for our rate of start-up growth," Kommer said. "The investment that we're here to celebrate today is a continuation of our long history of successful innovation and entrepreneurship."

Emily Allen

Allen joined the Grand Forks Herald to cover local government and politics May 2018. Call her at 701-780-1102, email her at eallen@gfherald.com or follow her on Twitter, @Emily_theHerald.

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