Stakes High In North Dakota’s Unmanned Aircraft Investments

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For years the ground has provided the oil and crops that have fueled North Dakota’s economy, but bets have been placed on an airborne industry joining those staples.

Those wagers are on the unmanned aircraft industry and they are hefty, with tens of millions appropriated for research and economic development efforts over the past decade, according to information obtained by the Herald through an open records request.

Since 2005, data from the state Department of Commerce shows the state has invested $35.1 million in the industry, which includes funding research, the pursuit and operation of a Federal Aviation Administration research test site and some construction costs for a UAS-focused business park.

The state Legislature appropriated a majority of the money—just over $20 million—for the 2013-2015 and 2015-2017 bienniums. It’s spending state officials say will keep North Dakota at the forefront of a fast-advancing industry.

“North Dakota’s opportunity to capitalize on this burgeoning industry will come only one time. That time is now, as it is being developed,” said Paul Lucy, economic development and finance director for the commerce department. “We must remain aggressive to stake our claim as the industry grows. Success in growing the industry in North Dakota will result in long-term development and growth of high-paying technical jobs across multiple disciplines throughout the state.”

The strides the state has made in creating a favorable business and regulatory environment for the industry over the last few years have captured national attention, and companies large and small have started to enter into its borders.

Nationwide, more than 100,000 jobs are expected to be created by the unmanned industry by 2025, according to a 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

AUVSI predicted North Dakota would gain 105 jobs in that timeframe, though those figures were released before the state was crowned the “Silicon Valley of Drones,” by some national publications.

It’s a nod to the state’s recognized position as an industry leader, one that could continue to grow with additional investment, Lucy said.

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Breakdown of North Dakota’s investment in unmanned aircraft sytems