UND’s UAS program soars to new heights with national and international interest

Aug. 16, 2013
Aerospace officials cite at least 60 media engagements involving Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training since July 2011

It's becoming a common reaction around the University of North Dakota's John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences lately.

That mildly surprised expression on the face of newcomers as they gaze for the first time upon the network of interconnected multi-storied futuristic buildings that form the main aerospace school complex.

It's a look that says ? "It's more than we expected."

And that's not even the half of it, as they soon find out. Eventually, they also discover the massive UND Aerospace presence at Grand Forks International Airport, where UND operates even more facilities and the world's largest nonmilitary fleet of aircraft, and a third aerospace site on the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Since 2011, many of these first-timers have been national and international reporters ? who otherwise had never heard of UND ? who've flocked to the school to see and to report on its surging unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) program.

Big time media

A review by aerospace officials shows that, since July 2011, 60 documented media engagements have taken place involving UND's Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training.

Ninety percent of those media visits were by national and international journalists or media developers outside of North Dakota and Minnesota.

We're talking folks from The Washington Post, London Times, Wall Street Journal, NBC Rock Center with Brian Williams, CBS Sunday Morning Show, Time Magazine, CNN and CNN International, BBC World Service Radio, French TV, Korean Broadcasting Station, Turkey TV Stations, German ARD Television Network, Channel One Russia, and the Italian magazine L 'Espresso, to name a few.

Pretty impressive for a division that has no dedicated media relations staff to handle the throng.

UND UAS officials also have been known to take their message on the road to interested parties around the world.

In fact, this week, UND officials, along with representatives of a UAS private industry partner are meeting with Kazakhstan's ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, D.C.

"We're just very proud that our UAS program is getting similar recognition now to what our airplane and helicopter training programs have always deservedly received," said Al Palmer, director of UND's UAS center.

Come to UND last

It's hard to know what notions these reporters and first-time visitors have about Grand Forks, N.D., or UND Aerospace. Maybe they envision a warehouse, a hangar or two and a couple of planes ? who knows?

"That's why we tell people who've never been here to go everywhere else first and then come to us, so they can see the difference," Palmer said. "People think we're this small flight school on the prairie; they really don't understand its magnitude until they come here and see it for themselves."

Oliver Routhe Skov, a broadcast journalist from Denmark, said he had a sense of what UND Aerospace was like from a recent New York Times story he'd read about the school's UAS program, still he was impressed with what he found when he actually got on campus.

He and Danish videographer Marie Klar visited UND Aerospace in late June to produce a segment for a larger piece on UAS development in America. The show was destined for what Skov described as the "60 Minutes of Denmark."

Their reporting took them to places such as Washington, D.C., New York City, Illinois, Iowa and a town in rural Virginia that had recently banned the use of UAS out of privacy concerns.

At points along the way, Skov said, UND's UAS program kept coming up in conversations with other UAS industry contacts.

"They would say to us: 'go to UND. They are the best at what they do,'" Skov said. "So we quickly came to appreciate the fact that (UND) is well known. I found it very interesting that the University is becoming a market leader in this industry."

Forefront of aviation

The world media is coming to UND to talk to industry experts and pioneers of UAS. They seek out people such Palmer and Mike Corcoran, both of whom have vast military and commercial experience in the UAS community; and Ben Trapnel, Al Frazier, Mark Askelson and John Bridewell, with their varied backgrounds, expertise and research in the UAS field.

The media also likes the students in UND's UAS program. Students Andrew Regenhard and Meagan Kaiser were recently featured prominently in a story about UND's UAS program in the New York Times.

Regenhard also was the darling of the Danish TV media, too, in June, when he eagerly demonstrated his skill flying his own home-built "hexapod" UAS for the camera.

Ken Polovitz, an assistant dean at UND Aerospace, said the media is catching a glimpse of the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that the school has been known for since John Odegard launched it back in 1968.

"We've always tried to be at the forefront of the aviation industry," Polovitz said, "and now we have a major degree program in unmanned aircraft systems."

The media are curious about where UND UAS students go to work after graduation, the potential of UAS technology and where it's headed, UND's role in vying for one of six Federal Aviation Administration test sites for UAS operation, the prospect of a national integrated air space for UAS, law enforcement and government involvement with UAS, and privacy concerns.

North Dakota has invested millions in UAS research in recent years, and as an industry leader in UAS research, education and training, UND is poised to take advantage of the anticipated commercial growth.

Five years ago, UND graduated its first five students with UAS degrees. They were mostly students who'd transferred to UAS from the traditional aviation program at UND.

"Now we have about a 100 students who've said from the get-go that they want to pursue a degree in UAS," Polovitz said.