Dakota Drone Minute: A Stroll Down Memory Lane With Brian Opp

Written by: Brady Drake

Photo by Paul Flessland

In this monthly look at the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) industry in North Dakota, we’ll be featuring guest writers, event recaps, and interviews with drone decision-makers. This month, North Dakota Department of Commerce Aerospace Business Development Manager Brian Opp will be providing some quick thoughts on the evolution of Emerging Prairie’s Drone Focus Conference.

One of a small number of people who have attended the conference all three years since its inception in 2015, Opp has a unique perspective on an event that’s fast-becoming a can’t miss in the industry.

Year 1: 2015

It’s amazing to think the first edition of Drone Focus Conference was put together and promoted in a matter of weeks during spring 2015.

The event was held at the Fargo Jet Center in a new airplane hangar and was really made possible by the graciousness and encouragement of its president and cofounder, Jim Sweeney.

With around 125 people turning out, the conference was well-received. The attendees, as well as the speakers, very much had a regional flavor, mostly hailing from Fargo and the surrounding area.

After the event, it was clear there was an appetite in Fargo for this sort of thing. Drone Focus’ focus on commercial applications—and mere willingness to openly refer to the technology as “drones”—helped it to carve out its own unique place in North Dakota’s UAS ecosystem.

Emerging Prairie saw the vision and made it happen in 2015, setting the stage for future Drone Focus Conferences.

Year 2: 2016

“Bigger and better” is the phrase that I think best describes Drone Focus 2016.

Following the success of 2015’s event, Emerging Prairie was all in on a 2016 conference and began planning and marketing efforts for an event that would attract people from around the country.

This second iteration of Drone Focus was held at The Stage at Island Park, which provided a still-intimate setting while simultaneously allowing the event to scale up in size and scope.

And grow it did. Attendance more than doubled from 2015 to 2016.

Exciting speakers from NASA, academia and private industry joined attendees. Case in point: speaker JD Claridge is the president and CEO of a company called xCraft, which appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank. xCraft didn’t just appear on the show, it was funded … by all of the sharks!

The format was fast-paced and exciting. Elevator pitches and shorter, TEDx-style presentations replaced drawn-out technical sessions typical of industry conferences. The net result was a fun program that placed tons of digestible information in the hands of attendees.

Year 3: 2017

If Drone Focus 2016 was “bigger and better,” what would the 2017 version look like?
Let’s just say Emerging Prairie took things to a whole new level in 2017.

The event was held in the Fargo Civic Center, which enabled continued attendance growth, exhibit spaces, and easy access to Downtown locations, where attendees attended breakout sessions and slipped away to lunches at locations such as the HoDo and Boiler Room.

Walking up to the registration table in the lobby of the Fargo Civic was pretty standard for conference-goers. It was upon entering the arena when you said to yourself “Whoa!” There was music, colorful lighting and even a smoke machine creating an atmosphere of excitement within the arena.

Drone Focus 2017 came out swinging. Before the first networking break, we heard from heavyweights U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.), North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and U.S. Sec. of Transportation Elaine Chao.

Sec. Chao’s participation was a huge accomplishment for the conference. It made national headlines, and the side meetings she held with key North Dakota stakeholders added tremendous value to her time in Fargo.

Somewhere along the way, Sen. Hoeven became a friend of Emerging Prairie and graciously offered a helping hand to Drone Focus. This is fitting since North Dakota’s focus on drones was established under his governorship.

Thanks to National Day Calendar, May 31 officially became known as National Autonomous Vehicle Day—a fitting touch for a drone conference.

North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site and Grand Sky business park touted the state’s emerging capabilities in Beyond-visual-line-of-Sight UAS flight operations, capabilities that are truly valuable to industry and provide a unique draw to attract companies to the state.

A state accustomed to encouraging more UAS activity, advancement and business growth took a new step. Gov. Burgum announced the formation of a Counter-UAS Task Force in North Dakota.

For the first time, the conference became a truly global affair, attracting attendees and speakers from as far away as Norway, Israel and Rwanda.

The Drone Film Festival was a fun addition, lacing in an element of awe and wonder at strategic points throughout the agenda.

Brian Opp

Aerospace Business Development Manager
North Dakota Department of Commerce

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.