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Is the Silicon Valley of Drones in North Dakota?

The state is positioning itself to be the nation’s hub for drone research and development.

An innovation hub is growing for drones in an unexpected place: North Dakota.

Dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Drones,” the state is positioning itself to be the nation’s capital for drone research and development, a story in MarketWatch highlights:

With the most open airspace in the country, vast tracts of farmland, infrastructure to test on and the nation’s first unmanned aircraft degree program, it makes sense that North Dakota would be the place for drone technology to spread its wings, and it’s now expanding at an unprecedented rate.

The cornerstone of this development will be Grand Sky Development Park, the nation’s first unmanned airport, which will open this summer at Grand Forks Air Force Base. The project features 1.2 million square feet of hangar and office space, along with a runway specifically for drones.

While drones have gotten lots of attention for their use in national security, they will primarily be used in agriculture and emergency management. The market around drones is expected to be in excess of $91 billion in the next decade, with 65 percent of the worldwide research, development and testing being done in the United States.

North Dakota wants to be at the center of this. The state actively lobbied to be one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s six designated test sites, beating out 37 other bids to be one of those selected.

The state invested $5 million to help bring infrastructure for drones to the base as part of its most recent budget and another $7.5 million in grants for runway improvements.

The University of North Dakota established a “center of excellence” for unmanned aircraft systems and is offering the nation’s first undergraduate degree program in unmanned aviation. The program now has more than 100 students enrolled and has spurred more than 30 similar degree programs at other universities around the country.

“We have academia, our military, the Department of Homeland Security and industries in the region all focused on unmanned aviation,” said Robert Beckland, former commander of the North Dakota Air National Guard, according to MarketWatch.

The boom in unmanned aviation is the latest economic boost for North Dakota. The state has seen an oil boom over the past decade (although that may be slowing), especially in the northwest part of the state, near the Bakken Formation oil reserves.

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Jul 13 2015

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