FARGO — A sold-out crowd of over 300 drone experts and enthusiasts attended DroneFocus 2016 on Wednesday at the Stage at Island Park.
This is the second year Emerging Prairie has hosted the unmanned aerial systems event. Speakers included representatives from the military, NASA, Northrop Grumman and senseFly, as well as local companies such as Flight Pros and Botlink.
Sen. John Hoeven kicked off the conference with comments about how North Dakota became a leader in drone technology “out of necessity.”
In 2005, the Pentagon announced plans to close or realign military bases in Fargo and Grand Forks, N.D., in its Base Realignment and Closure report. That forced Hoeven, who was governor at the time, and North Dakota legislators to find ways to keep those bases open.
“We had to come up with a mission and there weren’t many to be had,” Hoeven said. “We had to be innovative. We had to look to the future, so we looked to unmanned aviation, which in 2005 was a pretty new proposition in the U.S. military and everywhere else. But, we were able to secure the Global Hawk mission for the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Predator mission for the North Dakota Air National Guard.”
A great deal of work has been done in the private sector as well. In 2006, Hoeven helped establish the Centers of Excellence to provide grants to universities that partner with private enterprise to conduct research and development. That funding led to the establishment of the University of North Dakota’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training.
Many more advancements have been made since, and Hoeven said it’s important for that to continue.
“We’re in the lead. We’re in the front of the pack,” Hoeven said. “I need some really sharp young people who are innovative and creative, who have that American ingenuity and spirit, that are going to drive us to the forefront.”
Hoeven said North Dakota is already a leader in agriculture and energy. He believes drones will be the state’s “next big thing.”
Uses for drones
Attendees also heard about potential uses for drones.
Baptiste Tripard, who was introduced to the crowd as a “real-life rocket scientist” by host Greg Tehven, appeared to be one of the event’s most-anticipated guests.
The managing director for senseFly talked about uses for drones in agriculture, land surveying, thermal imagery and inspections.
One area that interests him personally is safety and conservation.
Last year, senseFly partnered with the University of Hawaii to monitor a volcanic eruption. Drones were used to create 3-D maps to show where lava would flow. Evacuations were made based on that information.
JD Claridge, CEO and cofounder of xCraft, was also a popular speaker. His company recently secured a $1.5 million investment on the ABC reality TV show “Shark Tank.”
Claridge wasn’t able to share a lot about his experience on the show, but he did say their appearance did a lot to promote xCraft and the drone industry overall.
Claridge also talked about the future of the drone industry, which he believes is in the type of platforms that can take off and land vertically and fly long distances.
“Whether you’re delivering packages or inspecting pipelines or doing precision ag work, all these types of applications need a vehicle that can get in and out of tight spaces and potentially hover, but then also move long distances efficiently,” Claridge said.