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Our view: Region needs to push drones in all walks of life

Herald editorial board

Grand Forks has taken a liking to the phrase "Silicon Valley of Drones," referencing a moniker made famous in a New York Times story about this region's efforts to promote the unmanned aerial systems industry. It's a comparison to the Silicon Valley in northern California, a region intensely focused on high technology.

In fact, a catchy phrase has emerged and is making the rounds locally to help portray the region's focus: Silidrone Valley.

Earlier this month, Kings Walk Golf Course in Grand Forks made national news when it unveiled its new drone delivery service, allowing the course to use the small flying machines to send burgers and other orders to golfers.

And last month, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the Northern Plains UAS Test Site permission to fly unmanned aircraft beyond an operator's line of sight. It means pilots at Grand Sky — the local UAS facility west of Grand Forks — can fly larger UAS aircraft at higher altitudes and at lower costs, since chase planes won't be needed for all flights. Helping celebrate that milestone was U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, who attended a commemorative event.

Also this summer, aeronautics company General Atomics announced it will expand its operation at Grand Sky from six to 20 acres.

So, yes, it's been a newsy summer for the local drone and UAS industry.

Yet an event that brought much less fanfare and far fewer dignitaries happened this week, and it may go a long way toward promoting the drone industry in the region.

Thursday, the Grand Forks Fire Department hosted the North Dakota International Association of Arson Investigators Conference; as part of the event, firefighters and investigators participated in a controlled burn. UND's Aerospace Department was invited to use its drones to gather data and two private companies also few unmanned aircraft over and around the fire.

As the Herald reported, the experiment was one of the first of its kind in Grand Forks, hoping to learn if drone and UAS technology can be beneficial to both entities.

Apparently, it can. Grand Forks Fire Chief Gary Lorenz said drones could be implemented into the department's response team in the future; Paul Snyder, a professor in the Aerospace Department, said he hopes to introduce the idea into the curriculum at UND.

"This is going to create more questions and get people's creative juices flowing," Snyder said in Friday's Herald.

It's impossible to be the true "Silidrone Valley" of the United States without implementing unmanned aerial technology into all walks of life and business — especially all emergency, rescue and investigative fields. Thursday's controlled burn experiment was a good step toward accomplishing that.

We were surprised to learn drones aren't already being used heavily for fire investigation and related work. After all, a local golf course is using the machines to deliver burgers.

At the same time, we're excited about the potential, the publicity and the image it helps portray here in Silidrone Valley. As this region increases its focus on the drone industry, the more it will impact the economy and kingpin economic drivers like UND and Grand Forks Air Force Base.