OUR OPINION: Valley's UAS focus flies high

Eight years ago yesterday, Grand Forks Air Force Base got a new lease on life when it was assigned a mission involving unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.

Our Opinion

Eight years ago yesterday, Grand Forks Air Force Base got a new lease on life when it was assigned a mission involving unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.

Eight years ago tomorrow, a Herald editorial helped point out the obvious, which was the huge potential impact of the new mission on the region:

"Grand Forks and the region, especially including UND, should 'go to school' on unmanned aerial vehicles, learning everything about them in hopes of drawing spinoff businesses from this fast-growing industry," the editorial suggested.

Today, it's thrilling to watch the progress as civic leaders' highest hopes are coming true. Grand Forks is a top contender for an FAA designation as one of six test sites for unmanned aircraft systems, as the aircraft now are called.

Not coincidentally, UND has emerged as a world leader in the development, testing and deployment of UAS as well as in the training of system pilots and technicians (the latter in cooperation with Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls).


Today, the situation is such that even if Grand Forks misses out on the FAA designation, the industry here still seems very likely to grow. It "looks like North Dakota will develop unmanned aviation fine without selection," wrote Kelsey Atherton, author of a Popular Science article highlighting North Dakota's chances, in an email to Forum Communications last week.

None of this has happened by accident. Instead, it came about because key leaders recognized the industry's potential and then acted on it, building new programs at UND and Northland and new ties to UAS activity at the base.

UND, for example, quickly launched a UAS degree. As a result, the first graduates earned their degrees in 2008, only three years after the base won its new mission.

More recently, national and international reporters - many of whom "otherwise had never heard of UND" - have "flocked to the school to see and to report on its surging UAS program," writes David Dodds, a UND public-affairs writer, in a recent news release.

"A review by aerospace officials shows that, since July 2011, 60 documented media engagements have taken place involving UND's Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training.

"Ninety percent of those media visits were by national and international journalists or media developers outside of North Dakota and Minnesota."

That includes not only The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and CNN but also BBC World Service Radio, TV networks from France, South Korea, Turkey, Germany and Russia and the Italian magazine L 'Espresso, according to Dodds.

As an example, Oliver Routhe Skov, a broadcast journalist from Denmark, and Danish videographer Marie Klar "visited UND Aerospace in late June to produce a segment for a larger piece on UAS development in America," Dodds writes.


"The show was destined for what Skov described as the '60 Minutes of Denmark. ... Their reporting took them to places such as Washington, New York City, Illinois, Iowa and a town in rural Virginia that had recently banned the use of UAS out of privacy concerns.

"At points along the way, Skov said, UND's UAS program kept coming up in conversations ... They would say to us: 'Go to UND. They are the best at what they do.'"

That's high praise, and it's a credit to both the vision of UND and the region's leaders and the skill with which they've brought that vision to life.

Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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