UND’s Unmanned Unleashed

Robin Hall after sunset. The building on the western edge of the UND campus is the headquarters to the University’s surging unmanned teaching and research enterprises. Photo by Richard Larson

UND brings together campus innovation and research in Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research

When UND President Mark Kennedy arrived on campus last year, he saw the same potential in the expansive North Dakota airspace as John D. Odegard did when he launched UND’s leading aerospace program in 1968.

And like Interim President Ed Schafer, who centralized unmanned activities in the President’s Office in 2016, President Kennedy saw the ability to integrate disciplines across the campus to build upon the unmanned leadership initially advanced by UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences (JDOSAS).

“Thanks to excellent efforts of the Odegard School and UND Center for Innovation, we have over a decade of leadership in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with a string of ‘firsts’ (listed below). But competition for leading this exploding field is growing, and we must step up to a new level,” President Kennedy said.

He brought a plan to Vice President for Research and Economic Development Grant McGimpsey to build on UND’s strengths in flight, testing and entrepreneurship, while expanding research that addresses the critical need to capture, secure and analyze the voluminous amounts of data generated by unmanned and autonomous systems. The plan also recognized two additional and important facets of the unmanned ecosystem: development of national policy on UAS and the need to drive innovation leading to next-generation autonomous technologies. The plan calls for catalyzing UND’s strengths and expertise through the Institute for Unmanned and Autonomous Research (IUAR).

 “The establishment of the IUAR will help UND maintain our leadership role and expand our impact to include the UAS data supply chain and autonomous systems,” McGimpsey said. “The IUAR will also be critical in helping UND address the Grand Challenges laid out in its current Strategic Plan.”

UND unmanned endeavors are often cross-disciplinary in nature, from aerospace to engineering and beyond. In this picture, Naima Kaabouch,(right center) professor of electrical engineering, works on UAS research with Will Semke (kneeling left), professor of mechanical engineering, and students. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Partnerships in progress

The IUAR is still just an idea, but will assemble quickly in the next few months when an executive director is hired to coordinate UAS and autonomous research activity across the University, drawing on not only faculty in UAS but also in biology, business, computer science, engineering, law, medicine, math, psychology and beyond, and reaching out into the community, state and nation.

It is currently structured to focus on several areas: Flight, Applications, Data Supply Chain, Cybersecurity and Policy, with each area to be led by a UND faculty member or members. An additional Entrepreneurship focus will be led by UND’s Center for Innovation.

“The broadly based research centered on unmanned and autonomous technologies and their impact on society offers opportunities for engagement by nearly every field of study,” President Kennedy said.

The institute’s governing board will comprise key stakeholders in the state’s UAS ecosystem and will be complemented by a corporate advisory board to be led by UND alumna and Packet Digital and BotLink CEO, Terri Zimmerman.

Grand Sky — whose tenants include aeronautics giants Northrop Grumman and General Atomics — will be an important partner in the research and innovation accomplished through the IUAR. The institute’s integrated research could encourage such companies to expand their footprint in Grand Forks beyond flight training into data analysis and more.

“That would enhance the number of jobs in the region,” McGimpsey said. “It will also attract more companies to Grand Sky that aren’t necessarily flying planes or UAS, but want the information you can get from them. The private sector component of this will be a driver of the IUAR.”

McGimpsey also expects close working relationships with the state and federal government, including the military. “The Grand Forks Air Force Base is a very important partner and driver in all aspects of UAS and autonomy, including workforce development, training, and a wide variety of research areas,” he said.

Combined data and cybersecurity research in partnership with the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security could open up developments in counterterrorism, such as more secure control of UAS.

Return on investment

The strength of the IUAR will be compounded with a proposed UND investment of $3 million in NexusND. The statewide initiative developed by North Dakota University System (NDUS) Chancellor Mark Hagerott calls for more education-centered infrastructure and workforce in the state’s high-growth technology sectors: UAS, cybersecurity and high-performance computing (HPC)/big data.

UND Vice President for Research & Economic Development Grant McGimpsey

“NexusND is a three-legged stool, and cybersecurity and big data are support mechanisms for realizing the dramatic economic diversification from UAS that we want to achieve,” McGimpsey explained.

The goal of most UAS missions is gathering data with sensors and cameras. To maximize the opportunity offered by UAS, UND needs the hardware, software and people to handle that data.

“You generate a lot of ‘ones and zeros’ when you fly UAS sensor missions, but the ones and zeros don’t mean anything until you’ve crunched them and converted them into actionable and meaningful information,” McGimpsey said.

Investment in NexusND and the IUAR will bring a significant return on investment. Research funding, company attraction, job creation, opportunities for UND students and economic diversification are all expected outcomes of a vibrant research institute.

“The concept of the IUAR is very exciting. It is representative of the efforts of so many members of the UND and greater North Dakota communities over the past 12 years,” McGimpsey said. “It is high time that we recognize and build on those efforts through the creation of the IUAR.”

UND’s UAS Firsts in the Nation

  • JDOSAS was an early UAS adopter. In 2006, it garnered support from both the Department of Defense and the State of North Dakota to fund Centers of Excellence for UAS. This was followed by a ‘first in the nation’ undergraduate degree in UAS and a string of groundbreaking research projects that have informed FAA policy and educational innovations.
  • The UND Center for Innovation has helped to establish UND as the home of a growing number of small UAS companies. In collaboration with the Grand Forks Air Force Base, the City and County of Grand Forks, the State of North Dakota and congressional representatives, UND helped bring Grand Sky to Grand Forks. Grand Sky is a first-of-its-kind UAS business park, now home to major government contractors Northrop Grumman and General Atomics.
  • North Dakota is home to the first-in-the-nation and one of only six FAA UAS test sites, an important partner to UND’s UAS operations. Along the way, UND established the first UAS Research Ethics and Privacy Committee to review projects to ensure that these operations are consistent with UND’s core values.
  • Most recently, the JDOSAS opened Robin Hall, a first-in-the-nation collegiate building devoted to UAS research and instruction.