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Matt Dunlevy is president and CEO of SkySkopes, a Grand Forks, N.D.-based drone flight operator that serves the energy industry. IMAGE: SkySkopes

Matt Dunlevy, president and CEO, SkySkopes: ND remains the Silicon Valley of drones

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – The state of North Dakota really has the complete picture of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and more pieces of the drone jigsaw puzzle than are possessed by any other state.

On Christmas Day 2015, the New York Times dubbed North Dakota “The Silicon Valley of Drones.” The moniker is appropriate, but we still should recognize that the state of drones in the commercial sector is a fledgling one, while Silicon Valley – with its billions upon billions of dollars of economic impact – is extremely well developed.  

Of course, the true Silicon Valley in California had humble beginnings, too. When we think about the early days of Silicon Valley, we should recall the Homebrew Computer Club, garage startups and Fairchild Semiconductor, which grew from 12 to 12,000 employees.  

It would do North Dakota good to consider its present UAS cluster as sitting where the then-coalescing personal computing ecosystem was, albeit disproportionately, in the late 1970s.  

Another interesting historical comparison of the budding commercial UAS industry belongs to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula. “Where we are, in terms of unmanned aerial vehicles, is about the same place we were with biplanes right after World War I,” Deptula says in “The Rise of the Drones,” a 2013 PBS documentary.

“We are at the very early stages of realizing what the potentials of unmanned aerial vehicles really are.”  

Aviation boomed after World War I, and Silicon Valley boomed after its ARPANET (the predecessor to the Internet) days. What one should draw from Deptula’s words is that UAS in North Dakota is poised for an upswing to rapid growth.

Huge injections of venture capital didn’t become the norm in Silicon Valley until well into the 1980s and ’90s. That’s why North Dakotans should be celebrating the passage of HB 1018 in the recent legislative session. The bill’s $33 million for a statewide network of beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) infrastructure is the best way for North Dakota to capitalize on its critical mass of UAS-oriented entities.

Gaining BVLOS at that scale could be as important to North Dakota as the semiconductor or microchip was to Silicon Valley. And while it can’t compare with the massive private investments that startups acquired in California, the progressive step the North Dakota Legislature has taken is certainly a force multiplier for the state’s UAS community.

North Dakota UAS begins with, and in many ways centers around, the RQ-4 Global Hawk mission at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The bright future for UAS in North Dakota was highlighted by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s recent visit to the base, where she announced that all Global Hawk aircraft in the service’s inventory would now report to the base and then up to Air Combat Command.  

This makes Grand Forks Air Force Base “America’s Global Hawk Base,” as well as the “Base of the Future.”

The Grand Sky UAS tech park, still the only one of its kind in the United States, is attached to the base. It helps bridge the gap between the defense and commercial uses of the largest unmanned aircraft systems in existence.

And in 2009, the University of North Dakota launched the first bachelor’s degree program for UAS in the country. The university continues to pioneer UAS in higher education on a global level.  

Headquartered at UND is also the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, which was designated by Congress and the FAA and is one of only seven test sites in the country.

The UAS moxie shown by these organizations also helped establish SkySkopes in the North Dakota communities of Grand Forks, Minot and Williston. SkySkopes – one of the top few UAS flight operations internationally – along with the base, the test site, Grand Sky and UND, will see increases in UAS operations due to the coming expansion of beyond-visual-line-of-sight capabilities.  

Through this cluster, North Dakota is likely in the best position in America to commercialize the benefits of BVLOS, which is, as one analyst put it, “the most talked-about concept in the commercial drone world today.”

Matt Dunlevy

President and CEO


Grand Forks, N.D.