It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s too small to be Superman, there’s no red cape, so it must be a drone! Today, drones probably already outnumber birds and planes in areas where the technology is being applied to industries like agriculture and energy — sectors that benefit enormously from real-time information on assets spread over large tracts of land that require monitoring for maintenance, security and other reasons.
That’s good news for areas luring manufacturers of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). It’s also good news for areas that support — and can help staff — the cottage industries springing up as drones become more ubiquitous in public- and private-sector contexts. Like North Dakota, which has an advanced UAS industry taking shape even as the FAA works to craft rules governing drones’ use in private industry.
“We’re in an in-between time,” says Brian Opp, aerospace business manager at the North Dakota Department of Commerce. “The FAA is working on releasing small UAS rules — 55 pounds or less, with larger drones to follow after that. We’re also in a period when there are greater numbers of exemptions being granted by the FAA allowing for a limited amount of commercial activity to begin, using drones.”
Use of drones for even limited operations and procedures is a step in the right direction, says Opp, and more widespread applications of the technology will ramp up once the rules are finalized. “Light is visible at the end of the tunnel.”
Decades of Drones
Companies using this interim period of time to position themselves to capture market share will be the ones that perform best once the FAA regulations are in place and commercial activity is widely allowed and accepted, Opp predicts. “Here in North Dakota, we’re at the intersection of a lot of different things,” he points out. The John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has over 50 years of experience in the manned aviation training and education world, for example. “They’ve been doing unmanned systems for about 10 years, and they rolled out the first UAS undergraduate degree back in 2009. From a research standpoint, in 2013, North Dakota received one of the six FAA UAS test site designations. And most recently, the North Dakota Aerospace School was on the winning team selected by the FAA for its UAS Center of Excellence program. There is continued recognition of North Dakota’s expertise in the industry.”
On the military side, says Opp, at one time North Dakota had the only Air Force base where the three major platforms of unmanned systems were in place at one location — the Global Hawk used by the Air Force, the Predator used by the North Dakota Air Guard and the Reaper aircraft used by Customs and Border Protection.
“But I’m most excited about the traction we’re getting in the private sector,” says Opp. “A lot of that can be traced back to the expertise and the ecosystem that’s been developing around efforts in academia and some of the military applications here. We’re seeing a growing number of tech-savvy, entrepreneurial companies popping up, ranging from pre-revenue enterprises to companies rolling out new products as we speak. It’s really exciting.”
What are they doing?
“They are tackling industries that are either directly tied to unmanned systems — a great example is a manufacturer in southeast North Dakota that inked a deal to manufacture aircraft for an out-of-state OEM — or, on the software side, we have folks tackling air traffic control issues for drones and software that addresses fleet management, which is really a business management software application focused on aviation companies — manned or unmanned.”
Others are positioning themselves to be smart service providers in wind turbine and other infrastructure inspection, precision agriculture and the energy industry. Opp points to “a whole portfolio of private-sector companies looking at this as an industry with plenty of opportunity and are looking at different areas on the value chain from flight back to data management utilization” as evidence of North Dakota’s increasingly visible role as a location for UAS innovation.
“The people at leadership levels in the state have decided to really invest in this industry, to support its growth,” says Opp. “North Dakota is mainly known for its agricultural industry and energy industry. Those are strong industries, but the unmanned systems [business] has the potential to diversify our economy with really cool jobs, and potentially very good paying jobs. But when we talk about unmanned systems in the commercial space and the applications, many of them are precision agriculture or energy related. So there is diversification potential as well as strengthening the things we do well. That’s super-exciting.”
Like the cloud-based operations platform for drones under development by Botlink LLC, a recently announced joint venture of Botlink’s creator, Aerobotic Innovations LLC, and Packet Digital. The latter is a developer of advanced power management integrated circuits for portable electronic devices and embedded systems.
“Bringing Botlink’s drone control and safety software together with Packet Digital’s efficient drone hardware creates the most robust and powerful cloud-based operations platform in the industry,” noted Terri Zimmerman, Packet Digital CEO, in a June 4th press release announcing the partnership. She transitions to CEO of Botlink LLC under terms of the partnership, which is raising $15 million to launch the operations platform. “With the Botlink platform, users will be able to collect and distribute data in real time, stay airborne up to four times longer and fly safely with real-time information and alerts on airspace and location of other aircraft and drones.”
Botlink’s contribution is software with which to control drones from a tablet or smart phone, says Shawn Muehler, COO of the joint venture. “We have included a lot of FAA data and third-party source data that incorporates real-time manned aircraft overlays on the map. As you’re flying your drone around, you can see where other aircraft are around you in real time on radar coverage and non-radar coverage.” The platform also indicates airspace details, such as whether it’s controlled or uncontrolled — and whom to contact if it’s controlled. Pop-ups indicate to the user changes based on the drone’s location as they are happening.
“A user with little or no experience, like an agronomist or a farmer, trying to get data from the drone can easily use our software, our platform, without any flight experience whatsoever, because we’re keeping them in check.” Cellular technology, the cloud and near-real-time data distribution are the technological bases for the Botlink platform, which makes possible flight durations of four to six hours. “Think of the amount of acreage an agronomist can cover now, with four hours of flight time moving at 60 or 65 miles per hour, and getting the data back real time,” says Muehler.
Agriculture, energy companies and utilities are the obvious target markets, but multimedia broadcasting, real estate and maritime operations are also on the radar. Border security is a potential market, especially with longer flight durations now possible, but border agencies favor larger UAVs for the time being, says Muehler.
Botlink is an organic Fargo enterprise, says Muehler; it’s where most of the principals are from, so it’s based there and has plans to grow in Fargo. The university’s UAS degree attracts talent, and the state’s status as a funded, fully staffed UAS test site is a big plus.
“The test site really wants to drive the industry forward and is opening the door for smaller, civilian startups like us to come in and work with their systems, and that’s huge,” Muehler relates. “The Department of Commerce offers a multitude of programs for UAV startups, and they open up doors to a lot of people outside the state. They’re willing to work with you, needless to say.”
Only North Dakota Will Do
Stuart Rudolph is not from Fargo or anywhere else in North Dakota, but he’s basing his SmartC2 aircraft management software company in Grand Forks. “I could have chosen any other place in the world,” says Rudolph, a Boston, Mass.-area native who lives part-time in Florida. “In the aviation business there are several things that attracted me, not in any order. First you need to have sharp people come to work for you. With the University of North Dakota and what’s going on at North Dakota State University, there are incredible amounts of talent coming out of those schools. To me, the University of North Dakota is like the MIT of the aviation industry. We’re here because we can get that talent.”
“Next,” says Rudolph, “veterans are very important to me and to us, and we can attract the ones who like the North Dakota lifestyle, which includes the weather. With the bases that are here, we’re hoping to attract them to us.” The third factor is the state, which Rudolph says “understands what it needs to do to attract different talent, so there is a good mixture of people in your community. It’s done a very good job of that. It realizes it can be one of the key environments for the UAV industry as it moves forward. Those were no-brainer reasons for us to move here. We have access to the higher level here. We could be in Boston or other places, and I am not going to get to the level I’m getting to here in North Dakota. The state is involved.”
SmartC2 markets VirtualAirBoss software, which manages aviation operations from first customer call through scheduling of aircraft, crew and equipment (not UAS-specific), payload data capture and storage to invoicing customers for services provided and auto-tabulating for reporting purposes.
“We’re not about flying or aircraft or controlling the plane, but controlling the business,” says Rudolph. “Whatever you did for your customer is now in the system, so it’s easy to manage. For unmanned aircraft in the US, people are being allowed certificates to fly for certain purposes, and they have to file reports. We allow them to create that report in our system. We automate the business process.”
On April 24th, the North Dakota Centers of Excellence Commission approved a ResearchND grant to North Dakota State University, which is matched by SmartC2. The joint $600,000 project will research ways to add advanced functionality to VirtualAirBoss. Matt Noah, senior project manager in NDSU’s Systems Software Group, explains the significance of this grant: “This project is emblematic of how our group conducts research through public-private partnerships to help promote economic development. We are educating the next generation of software engineers, providing them with applicable experience and helping businesses succeed in the state.”Rudolph says he plans to hire about 25 people within the next two years and is confident he can find most of that talent locally. He credits the state with that confidence — with taking the steps in academia and elsewhere to grow a cluster of UAV companies that in turn will grow into expanding companies in their own right. “The state is really doing a lot to attract and maintain people in the aviation business, especially in the unmanned area,” he maintains. “That’s huge, because it means I’ll have both my competitors and my partners here with me. That’s really important, because this is such a young industry. It will attract others who want to be a part of the industry, giving me a chance to hire. It means the state is successfully attracting like-minded people.”