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Alerus Center welcomes UAS professionals for 16th annual summit

Speakers stress UAS’ relevance to national security, need for continuing education

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Tim Hughes, senior vice-president and general counsel at SpaceX, and Sen. Kevin Cramer, answer questions at Wednesday's UAS Summit and Expo at the Alerus Center.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS – Academics, politicians, defense contractors and business leaders descended on the Alerus Center on Wednesday to apprise themselves of developments in the field of unmanned aircraft systems.

“This is such an important conference to exchange ideas, and to really hear the national direction of UAS,” said UND President Andrew Armacost, while addressing attendees. “We believe in world-class research on UAS.”

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Armacost outlined the myriad of functions served by UND’s drones. Among them are energy audits of campus buildings and thermal imaging of pipes, monitoring of oil and natural gas pipelines and expedited delivery of medical supplies to remote communities.

Armacost said events such as this are a testament to the interconnectedness of UND’s science departments and the defense community, including a recently announced educational partnership with Grand Forks Air Force Base. The North Spark defense research lab will promote innovation and research and development in the field of UAS.

“As I look at many campuses, I see stovepipes of academic talent where they never speak with one another, and nothing could be further from the truth here,” said Armacost. “Whether it’s our School of Aerospace Sciences, our College of Arts and Sciences or our College of Engineering and mines, those deans and their faculty have formed an incredible connection to leverage each other’s talent to do great things in fields like UAS.”

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U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke of a rapidly changing security environment, of which the U.S. must keep up with. He praised the innovative work UND is undertaking on this front.

“North Dakota’s UAS ecosystem is crucial to keeping up with our adversaries,” Cramer said. “Just in the last few years since I was here, that speed has accelerated. When I say that speed, I mean our adversaries’ speed as well as ours.”

Cramer was joined by Tim Hughes, senior vice president and general counsel at SpaceX. The two discussed SpaceX’s efforts as a contractor with the U.S. Space Force, as well as to increase global security.

One such SpaceX application is the Starlink, a satellite which provides remote internet service via space. Starlink has been used to restore internet service in Ukraine, in areas affected by Russia’s invasion. Hughes sees a future for Starlink in other parts of the world, as a bolster for cybersecurity.

Speaking on Tuesday, the first day of the summit, Sen. John Hoeven advocated for UND to partner with the National Reconnaisance Office. This partnership would entail internship opportunities at the NRO for UND space studies students, as well as research and development partnerships.

Hoeven praised the summit's growth and vision.

“When we started the UAS Summit sixteen years ago, innovation meant getting unmanned aircraft into our domestic airspace. Now, we have built partnerships that go well beyond our original vision, reaching all the way to space,” said Hoeven.

The summit hosted a leadership panel on UAS research and education, moderated by Mark Askelson, executive director of UND’s research institute for autonomous systems. The panelists discussed issues related to recruitment of younger UAS professionals, and the need for a workforce skilled in both hard science and communication skills.

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Mary Lockhart, president and CEO-PEMDAS technologies and innovations, compares notes with Bill Daggett, Delta advisory group, at Wednesday's 16th annual UAS Summit and Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

“We need the engineers, we need the coders and the people who can do sensor development, but we also need to balance these skills with a shift to the humanities,” said Robert Kraus, dean of UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “As we talk about sociology, artificial intelligence, trust in autonomous systems, the legality of operating unmanned systems in the national airspace, look where we are today. We have to include the cultural and sociological thinkers that help us integrate these challenges in.”

Matt MacVicar, manager of government relations for Rolls-Royce North America, concurred with Kraus. He asserted a need for the industry to craft a more compelling narrative pertaining to UAS’ relevance.

“The thing that we are seeking is out of the box graduates who are prepared to enter the workforce in all mediums,” said MacVicar. “Precision doesn’t always matter when you’re telling a story.”

The summit also featured several other professionals in the fields such as agriculture, delivery logistics and civil engineering, explaining UAS’ applications in their industries.

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