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North Dakota: The Silicon Valley of Drones

FILE - Students at John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota, remotely pilot a drone during a demonstration, June 24, 2014.

North Dakota is America's leading state in drone research and testing, the Silicon Valley of drone innovation — testing, developing applications and training operators.

Four elements came together in North Dakota to give the Roughrider State a head start in the unmanned aerial systems industry (UAS) — its emptiness, its weather, its university and its UAS-friendly policies.

North Dakota's drone industry is part of a global market, one that is expected to grow from $11.3 billion in 2015 to $140 billion in 2025, according to a report published by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The association estimated that the integration of current aerospace systems and UAS will have an economic impact of $82 billion in the U.S. alone over the next 10 years. Goldman Sachs estimates the worldwide drone industry could be worth $100 billion in the next two years.

In North Dakota, space is key. There are slightly more than 750,000 people in North Dakota, making it the fourth least populous state in the country, and the fourth most sparsely populated, according to a 2016 Census Bureau estimate.

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"How many planes are in the air that you might run into? How many people are on the ground that you would hurt if you crash? There're not many here in North Dakota," said Thomas Swoyer, president of Grand Sky, the nation's first and only drone-centric business park.

North Dakota's weather allows for robust testing under a variety of conditions.

"We have four solid seasons," said Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS test site. "Summers are over 90 degrees, and winters get below-zero temperatures. Light wind days, strong wind days — from a testing environment, that's unique."

At the University of North Dakota (UND), the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences began offering a bachelor of science degree in aeronautics with a major in unmanned aircraft system operations in 2009, the first U.S. school to prepare graduates to be UAS operators.

WATCH: University of North Dakota Trains Drone Operators

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​According to the UND Center for UAS Research, Education & Training, students must be "comfortable utilizing complex science, technology, engineering and mathematics principles. In addition, students must possess strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills. A commercial pilot certificate, with instrument and multiengine ratings, is required."

Because some of the technologies involved with UAS fall under International Traffic in Arms Regulations, some of the courses are limited to students who are U.S. citizens.

"There are no exceptions to this policy," says the center's site.

Since 2005, the state has invested more than $38.1 million into UAS development, according to the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Drones in action

Drone technology has the potential to benefit North Dakota's other major industries, such as the $8 billion agriculture industry.

"There are a lot of different applications out there for use of UAS," said Chris Theisen, a radar research meteorologist at UND who is the director of research for the Northern Plains UAS site. "From North Dakota's standpoint, the agricultural and energy sectors are big applications. Power line inspections, pipeline inspections, monitoring vegetation, crop health — you name it."

Usually a lot heavier and more advanced than the drones consumers find online, the ones used for these applications "replace a lot of dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, like deploying a UAS to get images for a roof inspection after a storm," Flom said. "A UAS can do that job more efficiently."

In agriculture, where farmers have long relied on satellite imagery and manned flights for cost-effective surveying of croplands and cattle pastures, "we believe drones can do it faster, and do it better, and do it cheaper," Swoyer said.

First UAS business park

Established in 2015, Swoyer's Grand Sky is the nation's first commercial UAS business park. Located 20 miles west of Grand Forks, the 217-acre development allows commercial drone companies — big or small — to conduct UAS testing and training.

The state of North Dakota invested $17 million of public money in the Grand Sky infrastructure in the hope that it will mean high-paying jobs for residents processing data collected by drones, maintaining drones and piloting them.

A 2014 CNN report suggested that starting salaries in the industry are as high as $50 per hour, or over $100,000 per year.

"Flying those so-called unmanned aircraft systems, there's really nothing unmanned about it," Flom said. "You still have a pilot, and there's a lot of additional support."

Once aloft, the aircraft can stay airborne for 20 to 30 hours, so many pilots are used to complete one mission, which means the mission is not limited by a pilot's fatigue or the need to eat and sleep, according to Swoyer.

Competition from China

The U.S. drone industry — and North Dakota — face competition from Da-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co., Ltd., a Chinese company better known as DJI, which currently occupies 70 percent of the global consumer drone market.

However, a memo from the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau warned that the DJI's commercial drones and software are "providing the U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government."

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"The concern is you have to upgrade the software periodically, and it downloads information from the drone, and people don't know where that information is being downloaded to," Swoyer said. "And to fly in certain locations, you have to get special codes. But for very sensitive areas, you have to go to China to get the codes. So, there's concern with why the Chinese are telling us where we can and cannot fly, because that means we are downloading that information, they are creating a record — or could be creating a record — that could be used in a negative way sometime in the future."

And there are other challenges. Current FAA regulations require all drones to fly within the visual line of sight, meaning a pilot or an observer needs to physically see the drone, which limits how high and how far it can fly.

"The FAA is working toward that," Swoyer said, adding that Grand Sky has received testing exemptions in May 2017, hoping initially to fly drones within 60 miles of Grand Forks County. "Here in North Dakota, we are pushing as hard as we can to provide solutions to make the FAA comfortable with how we are going to use drones, and how our concept of operation might be different than others.''

Beibei Su contributed to this report.

WATCH: VOA's Own Drone Test Shows How Difficult to Fly a Drone

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