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Unlike some parts of the country, panelists say N.D. is friendly to UAS industry

When it comes to doing business in North Dakota, members of the unmanned aircraft systems industry say it's the openness and passion state officials and residents show for the technology that brings them here.

Representatives from four companies elaborated during a panel discussion Wednesday about why they choose to operate from North Dakota at the ninth annual UAS Summit & Expo held at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks.

"All the pieces come together right here in North Dakota," said James Cieplak, senior business development manager for defense contractor Harris Corp.

Panelists seemed to agree one of the state's biggest attractions to UAS companies is its Northern Plains UAS Test Site, one of six in the nation charged by the Federal Aviation Administration to research the integration of the technology into national airspace.

Part of that research involves companies bringing their aircraft and sensors to the site for testing in various scenarios, which is helping expand the industry in the state, according to the panelists.

"North Dakota is doing a good job of putting companies together with the FAA, programs with NASA and with the test site to put those building blocks together the right way," said Daniel Johnson, vice president of business development for Sensurion, a small unmanned aircraft manufacturer.

Continued investment

The panelists say the state also has put its money where its mouth is.

In the last few years, North Dakota has invested more than $34 million in state funds toward the unmanned aircraft industry, which includes funding for grants, the test site and other initiatives.

One program, Research ND, provides a match of up to $300,000 for qualifying research projects.

Johnson said North Dakota should continue investing in the industry to ensure it can continue to attract companies.

"Put some more infrastructure in place for smaller companies to work together, to work in an environment where we can have some free airspace to experiment and build those technologies and make them safer," he added.

Prevalent passion

In addition to financial resources, the attitude of state residents also is a positive, according to panelists.

Residents, particularly legislators, are well informed regarding unmanned aircraft technology, said Mick Jaggers, vice president and program manager of Global Hawk UAS programs at defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

His observation was echoed by Shawn Muehler, chief operating officer of Botlink, which creates operation platforms for unmanned aircraft.

"Having the UAS test site and forward leaning government allows us to ... go out there and show the industry that the technology actually works," he said.

Panelists said officials and residents are much more open to the use of unmanned aircraft than in other parts of the country, and their positive attitude toward the technology is not lost on companies.

"The passion that is prevalent throughout here is one of your best assets," Jaggers said. "That passion you bring is second to none in the nation."