International UAS Companies See Potential In North Dakota

North Dakota has made a name for itself as a national leader in unmanned aircraft systems technology, but its reputation also has attracted attention from outside the U.S.

A panel of European businessmen assembled at the 2016 UAS Summit and Expo introduced audience members Wednesday to their companies and outlined their vision for how they seek to operate in the United States.

The U.S. represents a large market that international companies are looking to stake their claim in, according to Terry Sando, UAS sector manager for the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

The panelists represented Norway and Finland, two countries where drones can fly beyond the line of visual sight, a feat the Federal Aviation Administration has been hesitant to allow in U.S. airspace.

“They look at our market in the United States, once the airspace issues are handled and opened up and we have access, that is about 45 percent of the global market for unmanned aerial systems,” he said. “You’re seeing a lot of interest.”

Included in that interest is North Dakota, which has been visited by all three panelists’ companies.

Sharper Shape CEO Tero Heinonen gives a presentation during a panel Aug. 24, 2016, at the UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.
Sharper Shape CEO Tero Heinonen gives a presentation during a panel Aug. 24, 2016, at the UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.

Per Haga, founder and CEO of Norwegian company Robot Aviation, and Tero Heinonen, founder and CEO of Finnish company Sharper Shape, both have put down roots in Grand Forks.

Each business is a tenant at the UND Center for Innovation, which allows companies to rent office space or be a virtual tenant, a status that gives the company access to center resources without requiring it to occupy a physical space.

Robot Aviation is just getting its feet wet in the state, after multiple tours of the Grand Forks area earlier this year. Founded in 2008, the company manufactures unmanned fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. It looks to collaborate with area firms to test and develop its products

“Our goal is to produce superior performance UAS and adapt it to customers’ needs in a cost-effective way that’s safe as well,” Haga said.

Sharper Shape moved into its Grand Forks office earlier this year, after first setting up shop in Palo Alto, Calif.

“We originated three years ago in Helsinki, Finland,” Heinonen said. “Today, we have three offices and most of the action is taking place here in Grand Forks.”

Sharper Shape has its sights set on the aerial inspection portion of the UAS market and has established partnerships within the country to further its U.S. expansion, specifically to conduct inspections of utility infrastructure.

While it hasn’t established an office in North Dakota, Norwegian software company eSmart Systems has visited the state to test its products.

A software platform created by the company has several features, including the automatic detection of objects in imagery collected by drones. The company tested the product on power poles and other infrastructure during a visit to the Grand Forks area, Corporate Vice President of International Markets Knut Gustavsen said.

Though the presence of international companies in North Dakota can be seen as a testament to its status as an industry leader, Gustavsen noted the idea of defining a company by its country of origin could fall by the wayside as the market continues to expand.

“In the new industry, we are born global. We don’t to say for the rest of our life that we’re coming from Norway,” he said. “We’re doing business globally so everything that we are doing needs to be fitted to different markets.”