Is North Dakota Sili-drone Valley?

Written by: Fargo Inc

By Nate Mickelberg, Kara Jeffers, Brian Opp and Tajae Viaene

Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography, Paul Flessland, and Cilento Photography and courtesy of Kris Bevill, Sentera, Emerging Prairie, Tempe Police Department, Jakee Stoltz and Matt Henry

It’s an exciting phase in the development of any new industry when talk begins to turn into action.

To hear in recent years of North Dakota’s plan to become a nationwide hub of UAS (unmanned aerial systems) and autonomous-systems activity was one thing, but to see it coming to fruition before our eyes is another thing entirely.

drone large uas

You could probably count on two hands the number of people who really in their heart of hearts believed that a state with a six-figure population and a commodity-driven economy could be at the forefront of two of the highest-tech industries emerging today. Yet here we are.

Drone Focus Conference 2017

By Emerging Prairie’s Lindsay Breuler, director of the Drone Focus Conference

Curious about the world of autonomous vehicles and UAS (unmanned aerial systems)? Looking to connect with other professionals in the industry? Join Emerging Prairie and industry leaders from around the world in Fargo, North Dakota, on May 31 and June 1 for the third annual Drone Focus Conference.

Drone Focus Conference

“We think drones and autonomous systems are the next industries to help support North Dakota,” said Emerging Prairie’s Lindsay Breuler, director of the Drone Focus Conference. “With oil going down and everything else kind of tapering off, autonomous systems have the ability to really change our state. With regard to topography, weather, and a number of other factors, we’re a perfect state to test things in.

Emerging Prairie Lindsay Breuler
Emerging Prairie’s Lindsay Breuler, director of the Drone Focus Conference

“Our goal is that Drone Focus will become the next Big Iron for Fargo. In terms of scale and size, that’s where we’re going with this. We’re quickly on that trajectory with how fast we’re growing. There are huge UAS conferences in Texas and Las Vegas and China, but what’s different here is we don’t have casinos or the coolest water parks. We’re bringing people here for the reason of showing up to the conference and connecting with one another.”

Conference Highlights

Industry Professionals: We are bringing together experts from all areas of the unmanned-systems spectrum. From drone use in construction to an autonomous vehicle-friendly corridor to autonomous tractors, we will have something for every attendee.

Microsoft Party: What’s the point of a drone conference without getting some live drone action? Think drone races, autonomous vehicle and tractor shows, and new consumer product launches—all from the comforts of Microsoft’s Fargo campus.

What’s New? Some exciting additions attendees can look forward to include: drone races, autonomous vehicles, focused lunches, drone films and a party at Microsoft’s Fargo campus. Also, this is the first year the conference will be held over two days.this is the first year the conference will be held over two days.

Student Pitches: Students are invited to pitch their latest drone or unmanned-systems idea on the main stage for a chance to win a $5,000 grant from the State of North Dakota.

Keepin’ It Short: With only 4-12 minutes on stage, conference speakers will be challenged to present quickly and concisely. With rapid content, the hope is that the audience will get the most relevant information with the least amount of “seat time.”

Drone Focus Film Festival: With submissions from all over the world and packed full of incredible shots all filmed from drones, prepare to be transported to a variety of destinations. If you’re a Drone Focus attendee, you’ll get two votes toward your favorite film.

Focused Lunches

One of the primary reasons to attend any conference is to directly connect with other professionals in your industry. Drone Focus prioritizes these connections through networking breaks and social gatherings, and this year we will be offering four focused lunches:

  1. Construction
  2. Agriculture
  3. Autonomous Vehicles
  4. Women and Drones

Industries Represented

  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Government sector
  • Defense
  • Startups
  • Agriculture
  • Construction
  • Meetup groups
  • University students
  • Transportation
  • Venture capital
  • Utilities
  • Infrastructure

“This (the Drone Focus Conference) has the ability to change so many industries. Where some technologies might help one or two sectors, drones have the ability to help almost everyone. And the fact that they’re affecting some of the largest economic industries in North Dakota—agriculture, construction—is why they matter,” Breuler said.

Drone Focus By the Numbers

45: Number of speakers at this year’s conference—almost double from 2016. Here are just four of 2017’s featured speakers:

  • Brandi Jewett, Director of Marketing & Media Relations SkySkopes
  • Dr. Edgar Waggoner, Director of Integrated Systems Research Program NASA
  • Dr. Cynthia Cauthern, President Transcendence UAS
  • Jim Piavis, UAS Operations Manager Microsoft Research

$5 billion: One estimate of the total economic impact of UAVs on the construction industry by 2020

330: Number of attendees at Drone Focus Conference 2016

600: Attendance goal for Drone Focus Conference 2017

10 & 3: Number of states and countries represented at the conference, respectively

41: Submissions for Drone Focus Film Festival

2015: First year the conference was held

Did You Know?

  • Downtown Fargo is in what’s called Class D (Delta) airspace. What does this mean? In order to fly your drone or UAS in Class D airspace, you must request a waiver and/or airspace authorization through the FAA at least 90 days prior to the flight.
  • There are 6 different levels of autonomous vehicles, according to SAE International (Society of Automotive Engineers)— Level 0 being “No Automation” all the way up to Level 5, which is “Full Automation.” For reference, common features such as active park-assist and lane-keeping systems would classify a vehicle as somewhere between Levels 1 and 2.

Happy National Autonomous Vehicle Day!

At this year’s Drone Focus Conference, the team at National Day Calendar will be making a big announcement. Accompanied by a number of major players from the autonomous industry, Founder Marlo Anderson will be announced May 31 as National Autonomous Vehicles Day.

“North Dakota has done a lot to move the UAS industry forward, and I think we’re well-positioned now to leverage what we’ve done with UAS right into autonomous vehicles,” says Anderson, who will be making the announcement the morning of May 31, the first day of the conference. “To allow these vehicles in our state to test and try to move this technology forward, having National Autonomous Vehicle Day proclaimed right here in Fargo lets the world know that North Dakota is open for business.”

Sponsorship Opportunities

Feeling energized by Drone Focus and looking to become a sponsor? Reach out to Conference Director Lindsay Breuler today at [email protected] to discuss your partnership options.

Drone Focus Conference 2017

May 31 & June 1
Fargo Civic Center
207 4th St. N, Fargo

A North Dakota UAS Primer

10 Things To Know

By Brian Opp

1. North Dakota has been leading the way nationally in developing the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) industry as far back as 2005.

Back in 2005, then-Gov. John Hoeven worked with others in the state and identified UAS as an industry sector that had a ton of potential. There was a mission change forthcoming at the Grand Forks Air Force Base (GFAFB), and so what he did in cooperation with our senators and representatives at the time—as well as community leaders—was focus on securing a new mission for the base.

Brian Opp Manager, Aerospace Business Development North Dakota Department of Commerce
Brian Opp, Manager, Aerospace Business Development North Dakota Department of Commerce

We already had the University of North Dakota (UND), which had an aviation department that had been doing manned-aviation education and training for nearly 50 years, and so it was just logical. There was an aviation pedigree already existent in that part of the state.

From there, we began to develop UAS not only at the base but also at the university. At that point, the state began to strategically invest in the UAS industry, UND secured a couple grants to open a Center of Excellence for unmanned aircraft systems, which also brought in some matching federal dollars, and before long, we were doing some really cool, leading-edge research and development with some industry heavyweights.

2. To date, the State of North Dakota has invested nearly $40 million to grow and advance the UAS industry in the state.

Example #1
North Dakota is partnering with Harris Corporation, a Florida-based technology company and defense contractor, to build out a network called HUBNet, which will essentially be an air-traffic-control system for drones and small, unmanned aircraft.

This is important because they believe it’s going to be scalable. They want to expand it statewide and then eventually nationwide. The idea here is that this type of infrastructure can allow beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) UAS operations.

drone small uas

It’s basically tailor-made for the commercial drone industry. It will enable operators within the industry to really capitalize on the technology; put it to work; and make it more effective, cost-efficient and really build out the business base.

Our key players with that project are UND and the Northern Plain UAS Test Site, and the vehicle to make the investment Is Research ND, a North Dakota Department of Commerce grant program that encourages public-private participation on collaborative research projects that have commercial potential.

Example #2
Another project we’re working on and investing in is the Grand Sky UAS Business Park in Grand Forks. While a business park itself is not unique, this is the first UAS-focused park.

What that means is it’s really geared toward unmanned aircraft—developing it and implementing it in some way, shape or form. That’s not to say it’s exclusive to UAS companies, though. Drones and all the technology it takes to support them really are far-reaching, whether it’s sensors, data or the high-performance computing pieces that come into the fold.

There’s an open door for complementary technologies and companies to also be in the park. In fact, that’s the vision.

3. UND offered the nation’s first UAS undergraduate degree in 2009.

When folks started identifying UAS as a next big industry of technology that—on the government and military level—was really going to demand new expertise and a qualified workforce, UND was one of the first ones to get out there. That was really important to set the stage for where we wanted to go and where we are today.

And what we’re getting now is the University cranking out some really high-quality graduates who have a really great aeronautical background, training operating unmanned aircraft, and a good understanding of the airspace and what’s happening around them.

4. North Dakota’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site is one of seven FAA-approved UAS test sites in the country and is widely regarded as the leader of the group.

I can’t say for sure whether or not anybody else was approaching the FAA with a similar idea at this point in time, but in the early 2010s, North Dakota was going to the FAA saying, ‘Hey, this technology is coming. We need to be working on the R&D and the testing that will generate the information that’s going to inform the FAA on decisions regarding regulations and policies for unmanned aircraft operating in the National Airspace’ (NAS).

Before long, it turned into a competition where the FAA actually put out a call for applications to anywhere that wanted to be considered a test site. They were clear that they were only selecting six, and they were also clear that it had to be a public entity to keep things in the public domain and operate as a space shared by the FAA.

Brian Opp Manager, Aerospace Business Development North Dakota Department of Commerce

By early 2013, when the call for applications came out—because of North Dakota’s interest and effort to get this rolling—we already had almost an entire application filled out that just had to be tailored and modified to meet exactly what the FAA was asking for in its call for proposals.

We had that Airspace Integration Team (AIT), which was a regular standing group that oversaw the effort to submit the application, but underneath that, each organization that was participating was bringing subject-matter experts to the table and contributing to different levels of the application process—the safety case, operations, flight management and data capabilities.

While I don’t know the exact number, at any given time, I know there were at least 40 different people contributing different things along the way. Sometimes it felt like it might have been as many as 70 or 80 who had some type of role in the process.

5. Grand Sky, the nation’s first UAS-focused business park, is located at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Anchor Tenant: Northrop Grumman
Global-aerospace and defense-technology company Northrop Grumman just completed a brand-new, 36,000-square-foot facility at Grand Sky, and it’s going to be a great space for those guys.

They had a ribbon cutting in late April, which was attended by not only local and state leaders but also a number of high-ranking Northrop Grumman officials.

Anchor Tenant: General Atomics
The second company that signed up is defense contractor General Atomics. They’re the manufacturer of the Predator aircraft, which is flown not only by the North Dakota Air National Guard but also by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is based out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

They fly approximately 900 miles of the northern border using the Predator for surveillance purposes. It’s pretty exciting that they have space out there.

There’s currently a global pilot shortage, and so one of the pieces that General Atomics is addressing from Grand Forks is pilot training. They’re trying to build that workforce pipeline, especially as it relates to customers of its products—not only the U.S. Government but also its allies.

As it’s selling its product, it obviously needs training, and on the international level, it’s really the company’s responsibility to provide that training. So they’ve established a training academy in Grand Forks with hangar facilities at the business park, where they have international students coming in for pilot training directly from the company.

We’ll be continuing to work on landing more and more tenants to fill that space out. While I can’t share any names right now, there are a number of companies in the pipeline.

6. NDSU and UND are partnering with the industry on leading-edge research, development, training and education (RDT&E) projects relating to various aspects of UAS technology, including product development and commercial applications.

I alluded to the HUBNet project with Harris earlier, but another great example of this is NDSU’s Department of Agriculture. They’ve been doing some interesting stuff and partnering with some really neat companies—both domestic and international—taking agricultural interests and working unmanned aircraft into the equation.

Last summer, they partnered with Elbit Systems of America—whose parent company is Elbit, a major Israeli government contractor—and did a variety of precision-agriculture research projects. The flights emanated out of the Hillsboro Airport and used Elbit’s Hermes 450 aircraft, which is about a 1,000-pound aircraft.

It was one of the first examples of using a large, unmanned aircraft to explore precision-agriculture applications. In addition to exploring the effectiveness of the technology—whether it’s the aircraft or sensors used to gather information on the crops below—it was also a break from what’s typically being done today, which is using small, unmanned aircraft and flying into small sections and going at it piece by piece. With the Hermes, they were able to fly large sections of land at one given time.

7. Northern Plains Test Site, Grand Sky and other partners are establishing beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) UAS operations capabilities that are a first in the U.S.

Right now, regulations are such that you can fly an unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes in the airspace, but you can only fly it within your visual line of sight. They say it’s about a mile. And there are some nuances, and you can get some exceptions approved, but the rule is within visual line of sight.

Imagine this real-world scenario: A pipeline company has 100 miles of pipeline to inspect for leaks, damage and integrity. If you’re a drone company approaching them and proposing to use drones for inspection purposes, it becomes a very labor-intensive and timely endeavor to be able to fly a mile, move your camp or base of operation a mile downfield, and launch that drone again.

What we’re talking about here with beyond-visual-line-of-sight is establishing the technology, building the safety case and then feeding all of that into the process that the FAA has for making regulations for unmanned aircraft. And then putting the environment in place where beyond-visual-line-of-sight is possible—not only from an operational standpoint but from a regulatory and legal standpoint as well.

8. Engaging and developing relationships with the aviation industry has been an essential part of growing the UAS industry in the state.

There are already a lot of aircraft—whether commercial or private—flying around in our airspace right now.

Especially with some of these smaller unmanned aircraft, they’re really sharing the space. So when we talk about integrating the airspace, we’re talking about bringing drones into a space that’s already occupied by manned airplanes and doing it in a safe and efficient manner. That’s still a very important consideration that is included today in the test-site oversight board—for the representatives from general aviation to be able to voice their concerns and bring their experiences, knowledge and all of that to the table.

I think it’s been a really good strategy for North Dakota along the way and has helped us avoid some resistance to drone operations from the aviation community, which there’s been in some other states. Pulling them in has been a smart strategy on the part of our leadership.

9. A cluster of private UAS companies is growing in the state. This is an example of the types of outcomes we are seeking as the state continues to promote the industry.

Communities across the state are beginning to see opportunities in the UAS industry. For example, SkySkopes—an aerial data company that started up in Grand Forks and recently announced they’ll be expanding to Minot—is exciting because, from a geographical standpoint, being in the western part of the state enables them proximity and hopefully access to different types of projects, contracts and customers.

For other communities across North Dakota, it’s a great example of the fact that this industry is posing great opportunities for the entire state. It’s really easy to see the concentration of expertise and capabilities—things happening in Grand Forks and Fargo—but the whole idea is that this is an opportunity for the entire state, whether it’s startups, expansions or relocations.

10. State and local leaders have placed an emphasis on growing this industry in North Dakota.

We have enjoyed tremendous support and assistance from the governor—both past and present—and his staff, our congressional delegation and local leadership.

A great example is when we have companies who come and visit us.

Think about Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, the first two tenants of the Grand Sky Business Park. You might have a number of state developers, local developers, the EDCs, the universities, all kind of working together to bid and attract those companies to the area, but what really is a differentiating factor is when you have the governor, the lieutenant governor, and senators and congresspeople who are ready and willing to get involved and give an extra push and an extra level of access in the state.

It can be so meaningful and so important for these companies. Our leaders play a key role in not only helping to recruit and attract companies but also in relationship-building, which can be so meaningful—especially when it happens at such a high level within the organization.

Why A Base Gets A Mission Change

Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) is a process used by the federal government to increase efficiency in the Department of Defense (DoD). There have been five rounds of BRAC, with the most recent occurring in 2005.

It’s more or less a way for the military to assess the country’s military assets and make determinations with regard to what’s being used, what needs to be used and how to best consolidate efforts.

With the previous mission at the Grand Forks Air Force Base (GFAFB) about to expire around that time and with no assignment to replace it, GFAFB would’ve been a prime candidate for closure—a base without a mission doesn’t stay open long. That’s why the state—led by then-Gov. John Hoeven—made it a priority to secure a new mission for the base.

Why North Dakota Is The Perfect Choice

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site is an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) UAS (unmanned aerial systems) test site and one of six in the U.S. The site is based in Grand Forks and works closely with Grand Sky, an aviation and business park, to provide tenants with expertise and support for UAS development and operations.

In December, the FAA authorized Northern Plains to practice and evolve beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights. The site will support development and testing of this UAS technology, with Grand Sky serving as the launch and landing site.
North Dakota is an ideal location for UAS testing and development. The collaboration between Northern Plains, Grand Sky and the Grand Forks Air Force Base offers many unique amenities, which include:

  • Low volume of air traffic
  • Low-cost operation
  • Diverse weather conditions
  • Access to a 12,000-plus-foot runway
  • Commitment and support from local and state leadership

These amenities make BVLOS testing accessible and affordable for many in the UAS industry, allow for immediate access to airspace, and give participants a wide variety of temperatures and weather types to test in.

Leader Of A New Frontier

A Timeline Of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven’s Efforts to Establish North Dakota as a Hub of UAS Research & Development

Public-sector support for a growing industry is an essential, if often overlooked, part of the economic-development equation. To put it another way: Before business can flourish, it must be allowed to.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven
U.S. Sen. John Hoeven

When then-North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven—along with a number of other state and local leaders—identified unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in the mid-2000s as a field with significant potential, he sprang into action. Going back more than a decade, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.) has been an integral part of setting up North Dakota and the region as a leader in the rapidly growing field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Here’s a recap of his accomplishments and his impact on both the public and private sides of all things UAS in the state.

“A lot of people don’t realize that Grand Forks has responsibility for 900 miles of border security— all the way from the Great Lakes out through Montana. With 900 miles, you have to cover a lot of ground so it was a natural fit for UAS (unmanned aerial systems).”

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven


With the Grand Forks Air Force Base (GFAFB) and the North Dakota Air National Guard (NDANG) both slated to lose their flying missions, then-Gov. Hoeven begins working with the Air Force, National Guard Bureau and Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission to secure unmanned aerial systems (UAS) missions for GFAFB and NDANG.


To help kickstart the UAS industry in the state, Gov. Hoeven initiates a Centers of Excellence program, which awards the University of North Dakota (UND) $2.5 million to establish the Center of Excellence for UAS Research, Education and Training.

The award is used to leverage more than $15 million in federal and private-sector funding for the center. It’s the first collegiate degree program of its kind in the nation.


Works with the North Dakota state legislature to provide funding for Centers of Excellence Enhancement Grants specifically targeted toward economic development and employment opportunities tied to the new missions in the region.

Arranges a meeting in Grand Forks with the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to begin developing a path forward for the safe integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS).


Introduces language to the 2012 FAA Reauthorization bill directing the FAA to establish six national test sites designed to focus on UAS integration. With support from then-North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and other members of the North Dakota congressional delegation, Sen. Hoeven then leads the effort to establish the North Dakota Airspace Integration Team (AIT).

The team is tasked with working with all sectors of the aviation community in the state to develop a collaborative, “one voice” approach in preparing the state’s test-site proposal.

Understanding that securing an anchor tenant is key to obtaining a lease from the Air Force to establish Grand Sky UAS Business Park, Sen. Hoeven brings senior officials from global-aerospace and defense-technology company Northrop Grumman to Grand Forks to begin discussions about becoming an anchor tenant int he park.

They later commit to becoming the park’s first tenant, breaking ground on a new, 36,000-square foot facility (which opened in April 2017).

“The opportunity was because of our uncongested airspace and the fact that— even though we have some cold days—most days, you can fly. A lot of places, that’s not true.”


The FAA selects a consortium of universities, co-led by UND, to serve as its UAS Center of Excellence. The center will focus on research projects related to detect-and-avoid technologies, UAS command-and-control issues, system engineering, and pilot training and certification. The Senate Appropriations Committee, on which Sen. Hoeven serves, approves $5 million for the center in both fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Joins with U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) to introduce the Commercial UAS Modernization Act, legislation that accelerates implementation of UAS-endorsed guidelines for the safe operation of small, commercial UAS and promotes further innovation in the field.


Facilitates a Joint Use Agreement between Grand Sky and GFAFB for runway use to launch and recover unmanned aircraft.

The test-site program is extended through fiscal year 2019 due to legislation included by Sen. Hoeven in the FAA reauthorization bill.

Works to secure expanded operations for the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, including a first-in-the-nation certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight operations, which is later approved.

Provides particular support to sustain the Global Hawk program while the system is under development. Holds several meetings with top Air Force leaders to ensure the program is not canceled. The fiscal year 2016 Air Force budget proposal positions the Global Hawk as a key part of the Air Force’s future fleet of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

Secures language in the National Defense Authorization Act calling for an Air Force study on integrating National Guard pilots and maintenance personnel into the RQ-4 Global Hawk mission and supports nearly $8 million in fiscal year 2016 funding for UAS research at the Department of Defense (DoD).

The DoD then makes a $3 million investment in UAS in North Dakota, including DASR-11 radar upgrades at GFAFB and Fargo and the initiation of unmanned-traffic management activities at GFAFB.


In an effort to continue the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS), Sen. Hoeven successfully secures $10 million for the UAS Center of Excellence in the Senate’s fiscal year 2017 THUD (Transportation, Housing and Urban Development) funding bill, which also directs the FAA to work with NASA on unmanned-traffic management projects via the center and test sites.

Works to enable Air Force to use private contractors such as General Atomics to train Air Force pilots to fly UAS. The Air Force currently faces a severe shortage of qualified UAS pilots due in part to significant increases in demand for UAS operations overseas.

Continues to build upon the success of Grand Sky by supporting expanded activities at the park and recruiting additional businesses.

Office of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven
701-239-5389 (Fargo Office)
202-224-2551 (Washington, D.C. Office)

5 Questions with Sentera CEO Eric Taipale

In addition to some of the negative reactions drones tend to evoke, they can also sometimes seem a little pie in the sky—like something out of a science fiction movie.

When you learn what companies like Minneapolis-based Sentera are up to, though, you understand that drones are no longer the technology of tomorrow, they’re the technology of now.

Sentera CEO Eric TaipaleSentera CEO Eric Taipale

Quick Facts About Sentera

  • Founded in 2014 in Minneapolis
  • $8.5 million in Series A funding
  • 25 employees w/ more than 220 years of combined UAS and remote-sensing experience
  • More than 20,000 hours of flight time
  • Clients are worldwide
  • Partners include five of six largest crop advisers in North America
  • More than 25 million acres of land imaged and catalogued

Sentera drones

In this Q&A with Sentera CEO and Drone Conference 2017 speaker Eric Taipale, he explains how he and his team are using unmanned aircraft to tackle a variety of challenges in a number of industries as they attempt to fulfill the company’s three-pronged mission:

  • Help scale world food production to meet future needs
  • Make dangerous, dull and dirty jobs less so
  • Protect the environment

Many CEOs have a business and/or legal background. You, however, are an engineer by trade. In what ways does that inform you as a leader and a head of company?

Eric Taipale: “We’ve created a technology-driven company, and I think I’m able to make decisions about technology myself without having to pass through a set of filters or having to rely on someone else to assess what the right thing is to do next.

“I do have quite a bit of business-development and management experience that I’ve accumulated over the years, but my natural bias is still to be a very technology-focused person. And I have to discipline myself to maintain an appropriate level of emphasis on the marketing, finance and reporting side of the business due to that bias.”

While Sentera sensors and software are compatible with third-party UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), you design and manufacture your own drones as well. Why did you opt for this end-to-end solution, as you refer to it?

Taipale: “We really learned this the hard way over the past 15 years. The premise in a software-only business—especially a lot of the drone-focused businesses that are software-only—is that there’s some magical, everywhere, infinite-bandwidth network that stretches all over the place.

“And our experience on the military side was very similar to the environment that exists out in rural America, which is that connectivity is typically pretty poor and sometimes not even there at all.

“A drone and a sensor have to interact with the software that’s going to process the data they’re collecting, and the two have to be linked. The hardware, sensor and software have to accommodate the reality of the environment in which they’re going to operate.

“We learned a long time ago that the hardware has to know what the software’s going to be looking for, the software has to understand what the hardware’s going to be doing, and the hardware and software have to know a lot about each other and have to inter-operate.”

Drones are one of a number of technologies that have caused some anxiety about the seemingly inevitable robot takeover of our economy. Do you see them replacing jobs held by humans any time soon?

Taipale: “These drones are not doing analysis or the creative, human part of any of these jobs. Agriculture is a good example.

“An agronomist currently uses probably 30 different sources of data to drive a decision that they’re going to make about a field: weather patterns, soil-moisture characteristics, soil types, hybrid characteristics.

“But drones are not a replacement for agronomy. What they’re a replacement for is going out and gathering the raw inputs that drive decisions. It helps agronomists avoid sending out college or graduate students to walk fields and count weeds with sticks, which really is what’s done today. It’s a messy, inaccurate way of trying to assess fields, and it forces agronomists to have to take poor data and try to make good decisions with it.


“With a drone, they’re more able to look at the instantaneous health of a crop. Do they see disease? Do they see something that concerns them from a crop-scouting perspective? With a drone, what you get is a picture of every square inch of that field. And instead of making a guess, we have software that counts the weeds and tells you where the crop is under stress, including in areas of the field where they’d be very difficult to reach at certain times in the growing season.

“I can’t stress it enough to our customers—to the agronomists and the advisers who are the decision-makers—we are not in the next 10 years, not in the next 20 years, going to take away that decision-making part of the job. But we are going to give them really pristine data so that they’re not having to guess about, ‘I only looked at one percent of the field. Do I think that’s what’s going in the other 99 percent?’

“People think of these drones as sentient beings. They’re not. They’re robot airplanes with sensors, hanging in the air providing better data.”

At first glance, the ever-increasing amount of rules and regulations surrounding drones might seem like a burden to a company like yours. You said you actually welcome them, though. Why is that?

Taipale: “When the Part 107 rules were released, it was really the first time the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) provided a recipe for being able to legally operate a commercial-drone business.

“To me—and I think most people in our industry—it seemed very reasonable: A person who wants to operate an unmanned aircraft in our National Airspace System (NAS) has to know something about the airspace and how to operate with other aircraft that might be sharing that airspace.

“For the industry, I think it would be a huge mistake to go forward with some kind of Wild West-type approach where drones are out flying around potentially in conflict with crop dusters or commercial aircraft. That would be irresponsible.

“Most of us have spent our lives around the aerospace industry and have a pretty healthy respect for the way the FAA manages airspace. And I think they’ve done a really good job of defining those goals and doing so quickly.”

Especially with a newer technology like this, some people might be skeptical about the actual return they’re getting from investing in a drone. How exactly do you calculate ROI?

Taipale: “For us, showing ROI is really about going to an agronomist and saying, ‘We know you need this data. Here it is more accurate, more complete and at a lower price point than what your current technology is giving you.’ And there are a few components to it:

Crop Emergence
“The first thing we have is a crop-emergence tool. Right as the crop is coming out of the ground, we have a piece of software that shows the grower if their plants are not emerging. And there’s very good data to show that if we can drive that grower to understand what’s happening in their field even five days sooner, there’s enough economic benefit in a 3,000-acre field to pay for the drone—just with that.

“Because they can make a decision to either replant or they can make a decision to switch crops. In either case, they’re going to make the decision that many days earlier so they’ll get that much better yield, and they’ll be able to replace some of the economic loss. For a long time, people have studied: What’s the benefit of knowing sooner? And now we have a way of knowing almost in real-time.

“Nitrogen is far and away the largest economic driver we are a part of. In the U.S., we know that about half of the nitrogen that gets applied in the fall to fields is going to wash off into rivers and lakes before it ever gets used by a crop for growth.

“Drones can be a big part of developing what are called split-application strategies where we look at the crop, assess its immediate need for nitrogen and then give it just enough so it grows optimally over the next month.

“And then the following month, we can look and say, ‘What was the weather like? What do we think the soil is going to be like?’ And do another application so that we’re just metering out the amount of fertilizer that’s needed and minimizing the amount that runs off.

“Within five years, we think it’s achievable to cut nitrogen use by 40 percent while increasing yield. There’s good data that shows that what we’re already doing now with these split-nitrogen treatments is returning about a $70-per-acre benefit—that’s both in terms of a yield benefit and a cost-reduction benefit. $70 is a massive amount of money to growers, especially now.”

How Sentra’s Sensors Work

When the human eye views an image, it’s more or less seeing the colors red, green, and blue, which all correspond to slightly different wavelengths and frequencies of light.

What scientists discovered decades ago, though, is that beyond the visual band of light that our eyes can detect, there are some frequencies—in the near infrared band—that are very good indicators of chlorophyll, the chemical compound found in plants and where vegetative health comes from.

Sentera's sensors workA sample of the different types of images captured by Sentera sensors

Sentera CEO Eric Taipale explains how his company uses that information in their sensor technology.

“They found that by looking at the ratio of a certain band of near-infrared light to what our eyes see as red light, they could get a really good estimate of vegetative health,” he explains. “And in a nutshell, that’s what we’re doing today. We’re looking at: How does the plant reflect one frequency of light versus another?”



Grand Sky’s Role in BVLOS

Grand Sky, the nation’s first UAS-focused business park, is located at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Thmas Swoyer Jr Grand Sky DevelomentThomas Swoyer Jr., President of Grand Sky Development Co.

Thomas Swoyer, Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., breaks down Grand Sky UAS Business Park’s role in BVLOS testing.

Grand Sky Development Co., located on Grand Forks Air Force Base, is a commercial UAS business and aviation park. The company provides tenants with unique testing amenities, making it one of the top locations in the nation for UAS development.

“Our goal with large UAS (unmanned aerial systems) at Grand Sky is to get the aircraft up to altitude safely so they can start to conduct those commercial operations. Large unmanned aircraft must launch and land from a runway. We developed Grand Sky as a place where they can do that.

“Grand Sky went through a process to prepare for testing.

  1. Build the airport.
  2. Get permission to use the Grand Forks Air Force Base’s runway.
  3. Get FAA support and approval to start flying these large aircraft beyond visual line of sight.

“In December, that approval was granted to the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, with Grand Sky as the launch and land location.

“Our belief has been built around the fact that there is always going to be a place in the market for small UAS, like quadcopters, to do precision work, but that there needs to be a place where the industry can launch and recover large unmanned aircraft. That’s what we’ve built.”

“We are installing a system where we can utilize the digital airport surveillance radar at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. We will be able to look at the feed from that radar and see the aircraft.

“This technology gives an ‘independent, third-party’ view of the airspace being tested in. A signal is sent out, bounces off of the plane and lets the pilots and observers know where the planes are.

“We are really not changing what the FAA intended of having a visual observer, we’re just using the radar as our visual observer. So instead of having someone on the ground looking at the plane flying above or having someone flying in a chase plane, the radar can see these large aircraft perfectly well and will give us the same kind of situational awareness of the airspace around us.

“Once the system is proven to work as advertised, other companies can begin to bring in technologies to develop and demonstrate in a safe atmosphere.

“We have the airspace testing area and range to test all the different kinds of tools, technologies and aircraft that would fly to support commercial operations in the unmanned systems industry anywhere in the world.

“The BVLOS testing has many benefits for North Dakota, both short and long term.”

“BVLOS testing will:

  • Create new employment possibilities for the UAS industry in North Dakota
  • Bring in companies who want to call Grand Sky home
  • Benefit the North Dakota National Guard flying out of Fargo, giving the ability to launch and recover unmanned aircraft for the military
  • Allow us to start tests and do development work in other parts of the state, including the oil patch
  • Set up a procedure to demonstrate that the system works

“BVLOS flights have happened before, and other demonstrations in controlled environments, but Grand Sky will offer unique benefits, including:

  • A process that is replicable and repeatable for other kinds of aircraft
  • The ability to get large UAS into commercial airspace.
  • The range to easily reach to other areas, including the southern plains and the Appalachian and the Rocky Mountains
  • The ability to provide disaster response, recovery support, emergency response; provide agriculture investigation, infrastructure inspection on multi-state pipelines and transmission line systems; and work with Departments of Transportation, emergency services, and the police and fire departments

“Potentially everywhere in the entire upper Midwest can be covered by flights from Grand Sky. In the long run, it makes Grand Forks and other locations in North Dakota’s home base for fleets of large UAS. This is just part of our vision.”

BVLOS Explained: ‘Unleash The Capabilities’

Thomas Swoyer, Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., explains beyond visual line of sight is, why it’s important and the advantages it will bring to the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) industry.


* BVLOS stands for beyond visual line of sight. Currently, you are not allowed to fly your drone beyond your line of sight. If you want to fly your drone a longer distance, you must either have a chase plane or set up remote observers who are in constant contact with the drone pilot.


TSJ: “Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is about being able to remotely fly an aircraft without having an onboard pilot, ground-based observer or chase plane. There is still a line of sight electronically—either by cell tower, radio frequency or satellite links—that is used to keep the aircraft under control while it can fly beyond the visual range of the pilot.”


”Large UAS have a lot of capabilities, but these aircraft are limited by the requirement that a pilot or an observer must constantly be able to see the aircraft.

“If that one requirement could be taken off the table, it allows aircraft to:

  • Go farther in distance
  • Gather more information
  • Fly more cost-effectively

“We don’t need any visual observers. We don’t have to keep moving the pilot around to fly to another spot. Currently, during a pipeline inspection, a pilot or observer needs to keep relocating so the aircraft is always in sight. That’s just not an efficient use of that technology.

“The goal with BVLOS is to cost-effectively utilize the camera and other sensor capabilities on a UAS to take on the dull, dirty, and dangerous situations and jobs.

“A pipeline inspection is dull but needs to be done, and it would be more efficient if somebody could sit in one place to fly an aircraft. Sensor operators can do their job, and they can cover more ground. Along with being more cost effective, the pipeline operator would be able to handle problems on a pipeline faster because they would know about them sooner instead of waiting for a physical inspection crew to get out there.”


TSJ: “A lot of quadcopters fly at or below an altitude of 400 feet. Large UAS fly at 10,000 feet and up. The only way you can cost-effectively map or inspect 8,000 miles of transmission line, or collect 500 square miles of agricultural data in a day is to fly at high altitudes of 10,000 feet and up. This is why there is a need to bring large, unmanned aircraft into service on a commercial basis.

“Large UAS have many advantages, including the abilities to:

  • Get higher in altitude so they stay out of commonly-used airspace
  • Carry bigger and more powerful cameras to take more and different kinds of pictures
  • Travel longer distances from the launch point
  • Stay aloft all day long without having to land
  • “They need to be able to do that to effectively and efficiently capture imagery for infrastructure or agricultural inspections. Our goal is to utilize large UAS to capture 500 or even 1,000 or more square miles of imagery in a single mission.

“The collaboration between Northern Plains UAS Test Site and Grand Sky will allow BVLOS testing to unleash the capabilities of these aircraft and the sensors they carry, creating a replicable system and a repeatable process.”

THE 411 ON PART 107

By Tajae Viaene

In the world of drones, one of the things you discover quickly is the amount of overlap between the UAS (unmanned aerial systems) and aviation industries—commercial operators who used to fly fighter jets, flight-school teachers turned sensor-company founders and university students with a foot in each world.

Tajae Viaene fits that mold to a T.

Tajae Viaene Lead Flight Instructor Tajae Viaene, Lead Flight Instructor at Fargo Jet Center

She’s been the lead flight instructor at the Fargo Jet Center for the past year and has been flying manned aircraft for six years, but after attending Drone Focus Conference in 2016, she soon found herself taking a keen interest in UAS.

Realizing early on that there weren’t a lot of options in Fargo-Moorhead for people interested in learning to operate a drone for commercial purposes, she took it upon herself to set up at the Jet Center the area’s first training curriculum for Part 107, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) new rules for non-hobbyist, small UAS operations.

Tajae Viaene Lead Flight Instructor Tajae Viaene, Lead Flight Instructor at Fargo Jet Center

Viaene talks about what piqued her interest in drones, what people can expect from the Part 107 course and why visibility is still the most important factor in closing the gender gap in male-dominated industries.

My interest in drones really started at last year’s Drone Focus Conference…

I went to that and was just amazed at all the possibilities and uses they had—agricultural applications, solar-powered UAVs, all the places you can take them. I thought it was so neat.

Then, over the past year, I started having students upon students coming in and asking, “So what about this drone stuff? How do I learn to fly one? What are the rules?”

What I soon realized is that I was in the same boat…

I said, “You know, I need to learn more about this.” I called around to different places in town, and I didn’t find the structured training program I was looking for. So I discussed it with our flight-school manager, and he said, “Well why don’t you go get trained and work on developing a program for our area?”

So I did. I went down to Texas, attended training, and came back and put together a materials binder. Now, we’ve developed a whole course and have been doing this for months now.

PowerPoint slides taught by a flight instructor during a day-long course work hand-in-hand with the provided materials binder in order to prepare those interested in taking the remote-pilot written exam (Unmanned Aircraft General).

If you take and pass that, then you get a temporary certificate and you can fly a UAS for hire—whether it’s for photography purposes or you’re a farmer interested in checking your crops.

We’ve had people from so many different types of businesses take our course…

The first person who showed interest was a guy involved with a tower company in town, and that’s to be expected. Why not check your lighting and wires on your tower with a drone instead of sending a person up?

I had a number of different seed companies in town reach out, too, and I had no idea that so many of them were getting into this. I had no idea the data they could get from flying a drone over a crop.

Airspace gets very complicated and is very tough to teach yourself.

We’ve had a bunch of local groups from NDSU looking at using drones for research, usually in the biological sciences—monitoring wildlife, as well as data collection. Then there’s fire departments and local police. For fire departments to be able to fly a drone over a fire or into a building instead of using a person or to be able to get an aerial view, that’s a pretty neat deal.

I’ve even heard from insurance companies about utilizing UAVs for crop insurance and roofing. People are looking to use drones to inspect roofs instead of having to go up there themselves.

Everyone learns at their own pace…

It really is about learning patience and learning to teach to everyone’s learning preferences. Some people are visual, and I need to show them first. Other people need me to show them from a textbook or write something on a board. It’s about figuring out how to teach each person and treat them differently instead of as one group.

When we do our course, we do it in a small setting so that we can accommodate and make sure everyone learns what they need to about airspace. Then, we deal with specific questions as they come up. Say someone with a tower company has towers in different cities. We take a look as a group and figure out, “Okay, so in this city, this is what airspace you’re looking at, here’s where you’d need an authorization, and here’s where you’re okay.”

Much of the course is devoted to learning about airspace…

Airspace gets very complicated and is very tough to teach yourself. So we spend quality time teaching it because it’s not just, “I work for a company, and I’m going to take my remote-pilot exam and I’ll get a 70 percent so now I passed and I’m good.” Because really, you’re expected to know 100 percent of that information when it comes to liability.

We teach the different levels from the bottom up. It’s not just a straightforward “I can fly my drone to 400 feet” because it depends on where you’re at. If you’re right in the middle of Minneapolis, you probably can’t do that. But what you can do is you can take a look at different levels of Bravo airspace and figure out whether you could come out a ways and be under Bravo airspace.

That’s what we do is take you from being able to pass a written and multiple-choice exam versus really knowing the stuff so that you know you’re safe where you’re flying. Because you’re sharing this airspace with airplanes.

We’re all sharing the airspace together, and drones are only going to get bigger…

The drone industry is growing like crazy, and so we all have to learn how to share nicely. It actually keeps me safer flying in the air knowing that I’ve trained other people who are going to fly drones safely.

Even though my expertise is in airplanes, I can help bridge the gap. I can show people: This is why you need to be listening on the radio because there could be a crop sprayer in the area. Where would he be flying if he says he’s on a left downwind for runway one-three? That sounds foreign to a normal person, but I teach them what it means along with the traffic patterns so that they know where to look for that airplane.

I try really hard to be not just a pilot but also a teacher…

It’s great being able to have both young people and older professionals in the same room, walk them through this course, and then have them come back to me later and say, “Hey, I really appreciated this,” or say, “It really meant a lot to me to have someone sit down and be willing to slowly walk me through A, B, C, D and E airspace.”

3 Questions On Diversity

Fargo Inc!: With all the initiatives and attention nowadays paid to closing the gender gap in high-tech industries and not enough to show for it, what do you think we’re missing?

Tajae Viaene: “I’d say it’s cultural. With aviation, in particular, one of the issues is that the time that’s best for us to be really intensive with our training is also the time, in general, that we’re having families and children. It turns out that flying while you’re pregnant isn’t actually so much fun.

“There’s also the expense. You have to have a really good spouse to be able to say, ‘I’d like to spend a lot of money to do this training.’ It takes a family effort to be able to pay for flying lessons, juggle kids and everything else.”

FI: There seems to a consensus that reaching girls at an early age is of the utmost importance. How can we do that better?

TV: “In my opinion, the biggest impact is made when women who are in a field talk to younger women. Just going to high schools and doing that outreach is so impactful.

“I’ll give you an example. I’ve done discovery flights where I’ll take up a husband, and the wife just wants to ride with. Then, after the flight, the wife says, ‘So I never thought about this, but what if I took lessons?’ And I say, ‘Yeah!’

“It’s almost like it’s something that doesn’t cross their mind until they see that another woman can do it and is doing it. That’s when they say, ‘Oh, actually, I could do this.’

“That’s why I think it’s really important that women who are already in an industry reach out to other women as they continue to look into career opportunities.”

FI: Are you yourself involved with any diversity or outreach programs?

TV: “My boss has been really great about this. What I primarily do is outreach with different high school events when they have career days. Reaching out to the high schools is a big deal because those kids are in the process of deciding what they’re going to do for a career.

“We work with a professor at Concordia College and do discovery flights for his students every year. We also do outreach with different events going on in Fargo, as well as corresponding functions with the Fargo Air Museum.

“I’m also a member of the local EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association), and while it’s primarily men, all of those guys have wives, sisters and granddaughters who are much more comfortable getting to fly with a woman. The daughter of one guy came up to me recently and said, ‘I’m really nervous, but I think I could fly with you.’

“She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to fly with a guy, but she told me, ‘If you can do it, I think I can do it.’ I taught her how to fly, and now, I just started with her mother.”

As Good A Time As Any

With a global pilot shortage and a number of airline pilots retiring in the next four or five years, Fargo Jet Center Lead Flight Instructor Tajae Viaene says there’s never been a better time to be a woman interested in aviation.

Tajae Viaene Lead Flight Instructor Fargo Jet CenterTajae Viaene, Lead Flight Instructor at Fargo Jet Center

“Opportunities are crazy good,” she says. “Right now, as a pilot, you can pretty much go anywhere. It’s really neat when young people come to me and ask, ‘What are my job prospects here or here?’ And I can honestly tell them, ‘If you finish this, this, and this, you can for sure have a job waiting for you that’s well-paying and secure.”

Discounted Part 107 Training

On the day before and after Drone Focus Conference— May 30 and June 2—the Fargo Jet Center will be offering a discounted rate ($100 off) on FAA Part 107 training.

For more information and to sign up, visit To learn more about Part 107 training, visit

Fargo Jet Center

An Autonomous Conversation w/ ‘Guru of Geek’ Marlo Anderson

Marlo Anderson is more than happy to be the de facto spokesperson for autonomous technology in North Dakota, even if the role was a bit unexpected.

Marlo AndersonMarlo Anderson, Founder of National Day Calendar

“I was at a summit a few years ago for CNATCA (Central North American Trade Corridor Association), and I was heading up the tech panel,” says Anderson, who’s the founder of the heavily trafficked National Day Calendar website and the host of The Tech Ranch, a technology-focused radio show based out of Bismarck. “And I kind of shot out this idea of making Highway 83 an autonomous-friendly corridor.

“And there was a local reporter there who wrote a story about it, it got picked up by the AP, and the next thing I know, it’s on pretty much every front page of every paper across the country that we’re doing this autonomous corridor.”

Despite having—at the time—little more than a hobbyist-level interest in autonomous vehicles, Anderson suddenly became North Dakota’s poster boy for self-driving technology.

Marlo Anderson Founder of National Day CalendarMarlo Anderson, Founder of National Day Calendar

“All these people started to call about this idea and how it can work, and it was just one of those things where I was involved with it a little bit, but because of that press coverage, it kind of elevated me to this position,” he says. “And all of a sudden I’m getting invited by BMW and Delphi to ride in their cars.

“So through my radio show, I’ve become kind of an advocate for autonomous vehicles and the good that will come from them.”

We sat down with Anderson to learn about autonomous technology, the endless possibilities it provides and where he sees it headed in the future.

Fargo Inc!: You have an interesting anecdote about one of the reasons for your interest in autonomous vehicles. Would you share that with us?

Marlo Anderson: “I think we’ve all had friends and family who have been killed on the road, but a few years ago, the daughter of a friend of mine was killed by a drunk driver. It was such a needless accident. This person crossed into the wrong lane on the interstate.

“You start thinking about if the person who was driving drunk were in an autonomous vehicle, absolutely none of it would’ve happened. Even if the technology failed and the car disabled itself so it couldn’t drive anymore, it just wouldn’t have happened.”

FI: And your interest in autonomous systems kind of evolved from there?

MA: “It got me thinking about making our roads not just safer but more efficient. I started realizing the economic side of it.

“I’m not saying I want Ford or GM or Chrysler to lose market share, but when you look at it as being for the good of humanity—maybe one car can serve four or five families. Because the fact is that a vehicle is an asset that we all buy, and then we park it in the garage, leave it there and use it for a half-hour a day to get around.

“But what if we changed that around a little bit and let the car do more work for us?”

FI: It was generally accepted that autonomous-vehicle technology would make its way into the mainstream sometime around the mid-2030s. Now, the early to mid-2020s is looking more likely. What are some of the factors that expedited this early arrival?

MA: “The technology is just advancing much more quickly than most people thought it would. I think competition is what’s really pushing it more than anything else.

“I think large auto manufacturers are probably concerned about a company like Google—though they’ve said they’re not going to—or Apple, and then all of a sudden they’re competing against something they’re not used to competing against. Ford has been really secretive about what they’re doing, but they claim they’re actually further along than anybody else. I think you’ll start seeing a revolution of cars coming out with more and more advanced features.

“I also think that because there’s been so much talk about it, the general public has become more accepting of the fact that it’s going to happen. Right away, there was this huge pushback like, ‘You’re kidding me. I’m going to see a semi driving down the road and there’s going to be no one in it?!'”

FI: To be fair, that just sound like the general public’s reaction to any disruptive technology.

MA: “Yes, absolutely. This is just a little more scary I suppose because it’s not like a TV is going to come into your home and you might die from it. And I think that’s the challenge is that people look at their computer every day, and there’s some new issue—a blue screen, a virus, whatever. And then you take that thinking to an autonomous car, and you’re like, ‘Is this how my new car is going to be? Am I going to have the blue screen of death every time I try to turn this thing on?’”

FI: You said you’re actually looking forward to the day when a car crash makes the news the way a plane crash does. With the volume of traffic on the road versus the sky, is that realistic?

MA: “I think it is. Most white papers I’ve read about autonomous vehicles say they’re going to reduce accidents anywhere from 90-94 percent.

“Take North Dakota, for example. We lose about 100 people a year on the roads. You’d be reducing that number to about 10 people. Apply that to the country, and we reduce traffic deaths to about 4,000—instead of 40,000.

“So you have the deaths, but then there’s also the injuries—people who are disabled because of vehicle accidents. Then, there are the animals that are hit, the vehicles they disable. Most of that stuff will go away.”

FI: Beyond safety, what are some of the ways this is going to impact the average person’s everyday life?

MA: “One thing is the question of: Will you even need a car in the future? Will you be able to just call up a rideshare service, take a car and then use other transport when you go long distances? I think there will be more and more people who won’t even invest in a car.”

FI: That’s likely to have pretty far-reaching effects, isn’t it?

MA: “I think about the structure I’m looking at right now: a parking lot. They may not even be that important in the future. Or maybe you use your own car to get to work, and then you send it back home.

“Look at San Francisco. It actually costs more to park your car than a hotel stay. Your hotel is $250, and if you valet a car overnight, it’s $300 for the car. If you’re working in that type of situation, if you can send your car home or send it to pick up your spouse or send your kids to school or whatever, it really changes things.

“I’m a three-stall garage kind of person, but do we really need three stalls anymore? We probably only need one—or none. Everything changes because of this.”

FI: If you’re able to guess, how do you think liability with these vehicles is going to work?

MA: “There’s a movement afoot where when you buy your autonomous vehicle, you’d buy your insurance with it. You spend $50,000 on the car, and then you don’t have to worry about your monthly or annual insurance payments. The car manufacturer and you are kind of simultaneously taking the risk on, and you buy the insurance as part of the car.

“As far as the liability part of it, if it’s your car, you’ll still be liable unless there’s some real major defect that would cause the manufacturer to do a recall or something along those lines. But generally speaking, it will be that way.

“It’s no different than now, really. If you get a car, don’t change the oil in it for 100,000 miles; you’re driving down the interstate, your engine seizes, and there’s some person behind you who runs into you; you’re the one who’s at fault. That’s just how it is, right? Because you didn’t do the proper maintenance on the vehicle.

“Well, it’s the same thing here. You’re going to be required to do maintenance on these vehicles. Now, the car might tell you it’s time to get the oil changed or whatever it is, but what’s interesting is that the car is going to record everything. So if you get into an accident and it’s because something failed, the car’s going to be able to report to the law officer, ‘He hasn’t changed his oil in 100,000 miles, and that’s the reason the accident occurred.’”

FI: A lot has been made about the effect autonomous technology is going to have on certain industries. Trucking—with 3.5 million Americans employed as drivers and 9 million employed in the industry—has gotten a lot of attention, in particular. You seem to think those concerns have been greatly exaggerated, though.

MA: “There are a couple different thoughts on that. First of all, I don’t think people who are in the trucking industry right now really have to be concerned—outside of maybe somebody who’s in their mid-teens or early 20s. By the time they retire, we might get to full autonomy by that time.

“I think the government is going to require somebody to always be in the vehicle when you’re driving a shipment of something. The only difference is that you’re probably not going to be behind the wheel as much. You’re just going to be in there safekeeping, and dealing with more things on the business side.

“That person who has just one truck, all of a sudden, instead of only working eight, 10, or 12 hours a day or whatever the regulations are, that truck can be traveling 24/7. And that person, when it’s in autonomous mode, can be doing video conferencing and be working toward getting that next gig—all this stuff that’s a little more tricky when you’re driving down the road.”

FI: Which is why you think other industries will actually bear more of the brunt of this, correct?

MA: “Right. As it becomes cheaper for freight to be moved via truck, more and more trucks will be needed. I actually see the rail industry—and maybe shipping to a lesser extent—being affected more.

“You could look at it the other way, though, too. Take the Hudson Bay route—very underutilized right now. That’s why Canada loves this so much. If trucking all of a sudden becomes much more efficient, that Hudson Bay route might open up, and all of a sudden we’re using that to ship things to Europe. So it may actually value-add to our region.

“And I know this gets way off what we’re talking about here, but we grow durum to make noodles. We have a macaroni plant in Carrington (N.D.). Why is it that Chef Boyardee isn’t sitting right next to them? Well, it’s because it’s so expensive for them to bring all the other ingredients here. It’s actually cheaper to send this heavy, raw material out of here than to bring all the other lighter things into North Dakota.

“So maybe as we move this forward and trucking becomes more efficient, that changes and all of a sudden we attract companies like Chef Boyardee. All of a sudden, we start value-adding to the products we have, and that grows our economy as well.”

Uber Crash

For autonomous-vehicle advocates like Marlo Anderson, a late March crash this year in Tempe, Ariz., involving a self-driving Uber car doesn’t lessen their faith in the technology, it bolsters it.

Uber CrashUber crash in Tempe, Arizona, late last March

He sees the accident, which by all accounts was the result of a human driver’s failure to yield, as further proof that, if we’re able to choose between roadways populated by distracted, error-prone human operators or machines, we should opt for the latter.

“Even though the (crash) in Arizona wasn’t actually the autonomous vehicle’s fault at all, Uber still pulled their vehicles off the road to investigate,” Anderson says. “Because I’m sure what they’re thinking is, ‘Is there a way that the autonomous vehicle could’ve swerved to avoid the accident?'”

After all, that spontaneous ability to react is part of driving, right?

Right, Anderson agrees, though he’s still confident that autonomous cars can become better at it than people.

“I was in a Delphi vehicle about a year and a half ago where we almost had an accident,” Anderson recalls. “We were in Las Vegas in eight lanes of traffic. We were in one of the middle lanes, and this car in front of us stopped on a dime.

“I don’t know if a squirrel ran out in front of them or what, but because of the distance we were following the vehicle, if you or I would’ve been driving, we would’ve slammed right into it.

“Our process is this: We look over our shoulder to see if there’s anyone in the other lane, but by that time, we’ve hit the vehicle. The autonomous vehicle we were in, though, just went to the right and went right around it. It’s interesting to see that it looks at alternate ways other than how you and I are trained to get around a vehicle.”

10 Things To Know About Drone Racing

Drone racing is a growing sport—with videos and televised events happening around the world. As Jakee Stoltz and Matt Henry started seeing Drone Racing League videos circulating early last year, they wanted to get involved. Based out of Grand Forks, the pair created Red River Rotocross in April 2016.

Drone RacingStoltz and Henry are both mission managers at the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks. They support all flying activities, from interacting with clients to getting operational approvals to flying small UAS (unmanned aerial systems) to supervising flight crews. Since their work deals with drones and they had both built RC aircraft in the past, they thought they would buy some drone-racing parts and dive in.

As the sport continues to grow in visibility and popularity, here are some things Stoltz and Henry think you should know about it:

1. Drone racing involves manually flying a high-performance quadcopter through a course from a first-person view.

2. The pilot sees what the drone sees through goggles that live stream video from a low-resolution camera mounted on a drone.

3. Races typically see five to six pilots flying at the same time through a course made of gates, flags and trees.

4. Drones can reach speeds of 80 mph during races.

5. The drones’ battery life is two to three minutes.

6. Power and maneuverability—not endurance—are key.

7. Altogether, the equipment that racing requires can range from $600-$1,200.

8. Most pilots choose to build their own drones from a selection of parts.

9. Simulators can be used to learn to fly before flying the real aircraft.

10. You can get involved by checking out Red River Rotocross on Facebook and joining your local MultiGP Drone Racing Chapter.

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Brady Drake is the editor of Fargo INC!