Drone Research Efforts Seeing Expansion At North Dakota Universities

BISMARCK, N.D. — Research activity at North Dakota universities continues to flourish as curious staff explore uses for unmanned aircraft technology across various industries.

Staff from two the state’s top research universities gave overviews of their respective institution’s projects and initiatives at the state-sponsored UAS Industry Day event on March 23 in Bismarck.

At the University of North Dakota, an abundance of research activity has school officials working to stand up the Institute for Unmanned Autonomous Research.

“What we’re trying to do with this institute is trying to integrate all these activities and get faulty and researchers working together across the very wide range of things that UAS touch,” Vice President for Research and Economic Development Grant McGimpsey said

The institute, announced in February, would seek to bolster research and economic development in several areas, including flight, data and cyber security, policy and planning for future needs.

Projects exploring flight capabilities would include topics such as sense-and-avoid technology, avionics and human factors that influence how a drone is operated.  

With drone flights comes data collection and the need to protect from the time aircraft is flying to when the data is uploaded to a computer for analysis and storage. McGimpsey noted research in this avenue would align with the North Dakota University System’s Nexus ND initiative, which aims to to develop research, education, workforce training and economic development agendas in the high-growth areas of UAS, cybersecurity and big data.

McGimpsey also said the institute and North Dakota as a whole should continue to play a role in informing policy for drone operations as the industry expands.

“We need to be the thought leaders when it comes to UAS policy,” he said, including in the arenas of political, legal and economic policy.

Evolving policies and technology make the future of hard to predict, and McGimpsey said North Dakota UAS industry members should take an active role in laying groundwork for it.

“I think everyone in this room kind of has a good idea of what is going to happen tomorrow with UAS. I don’t know about next week,” he added. “Everything changes so rapidly and there are so many developments in so many different areas.”

More than ag

Similar to UND, the overall number of research flights and projects and the topics they cover continues to grow at North Dakota State University.  

While agriculture takes center stage at NDSU, Director of Research Operations Aaron Reinholz said it’s not the only industry the college’s research is assisting.

For example, NDSU is home to the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, a research, education and outreach center that promotes safe and efficient movement of people and goods.

The transportation sector is an area of growth for drone researchers, Reinholz said.

“UAS can play a big role in planning for infrastructure, assessing and monitoring existing infrastructure and really provide a lot of value to that transportation sector,” he said.

Expertise from the institute and other partners such as North Dakota Department of Transportation helps guide research efforts, Reinholz added.

Researchers and instructors are investigating other uses for unmanned aircraft in the arenas of engineering, search and rescue and even the visual arts. Reinholz said one visual arts professor plans to offer a drone photography class this coming fall.

Agriculture remains the college most visible research concentration, with one project employing the use of a large drone to collect data from 100 square miles of North Dakota farmland this past summer attracting international attention.

But, Reinholz said, even with agriculture there is collaboration across multiple departments on research efforts including ag machinists, plant geneticists, leaf scientists and plant pathologists.

“It’s really a multi-disciplinary research effort,” he added.

This story is part of Droning On’s weeklong coverage highlighting presentations made at North Dakota UAS Industry Day held March 23 in Bismarck.