UND is the envy of the world in a sky’s-the-limit industry that’s now just getting off the ground

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UND is the envy of the world in a sky’s-the-limit industry that’s now just getting off the ground

When he first came to the University of North Dakota, David Dvorak dreamed about building cool jet fighters.

Instead, in an office park south of Grand Forks, Dvorak now runs his own business, Field of View LLC, where he and fellow engineer Kaci Lemler produce camera systems that are specifically designed for use in agricultural aerial imaging on unmanned aircraft.

The third member of Field of View is Danny Hajicek, a test engineer who does software coding remotely from California.

They connected with their careers in one of the world’s hottest industries — unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, often dubbed “drones” by the media — as a direct result of their education and training at the University of North Dakota.

UND is a global leader in UAS. In a multidisciplinary, collaborative effort centered at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, UND is setting a blistering pace of innovation in this field.

“We got an excellent education in this field, including a lot of hands-on work,” said Dvorak, a St. Cloud, Minn., native who started the company after he and his team won an Innovate ND Business Plan Competition in 2011. “We launched Field of View as a company that would build and deploy UAS that could survey agricultural crops.”

For Lemler, a Buxton, N.D., native who double-majored in mechanical engineering and mathematics, the UAS light came on during an academic counseling session with Will Semke, a UND mechanical engineering professor, near the end of her sophomore year.

“Dr. Semke asked me if I wanted a summer job, and he got me into the UAS engineering project,” said Lemler, who was home-schooled but also did 90 credits of college courses during her high school years.

“At that point I had no idea what UAS was; I was completely new to the scene,” she said. “Later, as part of my master’s degree, I wrote my thesis on UAS. My senior design project, as an undergraduate, was on a project with Lockheed Martin to build a search-and-rescue payload for their Desert Hawk UAS.”

The Field of View trio and several other students made waves not long ago when they won a cash prize as part of an international UAS competition in Australia that stumped all the other participants. The goal of that competition was to locate a life-sized dummy known as “Outback Joe” and then deliver him a water bottle.

Today, Field of View — with its original roadmap altered to reflect regulatory challenges — focuses on designing and building payloads that are used by other UAS companies.

All three of these young engineer-entrepreneurs are graduates of the UND College of Engineering & Mines: Dvorak and Lemler in mechanical engineering, and Hajicek, a Fargo native, in electrical engineering. All three hold UND engineering master’s degrees in their respective fields.

Opportunities abound through UND’s UAS training and education, says Dvorak. “I got interested in UAS after going to the UAS Summit in Grand Forks in 2007,” he said.

“There was a presentation about a UAS designed to take pictures of crops so farmers can save money, increase yields and reduce environmental impact. I found that pretty compelling,” Dvorak continued. “Then I was made the lead on a student team that was designing a precision agriculture payload. That effort was part of the College of Engineering & Mines’ UAS Engineering group under (Semke) and the late Dr. Richard Schultz. I worked with the team to design a payload designed to look at plant stress.”

World-class operation

What is a UAS?

There is no single, all-encompassing definition. Some folks call them drones, others call them unmanned aerial vehicles, while at UND, they’re consistently referred to as unmanned aircraft systems, or simply UAS.

UND offers the country’s first UAS Operations degree, with a curriculum that offers breadth and depth of instruction needed to ensure graduates are prepared to work as pilots/operators and/or developmental team members of UAS teams.

Folks like Ben Trapnell and Michael Corcoran — just two of the marvelously adept UND UAS faculty members — take students on a ride through the world of UAS that promises untold opportunities.

Think we’re exaggerating?

Check out the media coverage of UND UAS in the last couple of years: from all over the world, closing in on 100 media contacts, requests for interviews, and TV news presentations.

For example, a recent issue of Popular Science reports on an interview with UND Center for UAS Research, Education and Training Director Al Palmer. He’s also quoted on camera in an extensive recent video story about UAS by the United Kingdom’s largest commercial television network.

The UND Center for UAS Research, Education and Training, established in 2006, is a key link between private industry and UAS researchers. The Center promotes commercialization of new UAS-related products and services while bringing new UAS-related business ventures to North Dakota, notes Palmer, a 30-year-plus veteran of UND Aerospace.

“Our most important goals are to create a world-class infrastructure for UAS development, testing and evaluation,” said Palmer. “We also want to create the finest training program of its kind anywhere in the world.”

Hub of collaboration

Those goals are closely tied with the Center’s aim of promoting commercialization and stimulating private-sector job growth throughout the region. This UND Center of Excellence performs research and development on UAS technologies, applications and human factors issues, and encourages commercialization of new UAS-related products and services. The UAS Center also focuses on education and training for UAS integration into the national airspace system. UND researchers in the Center come from UND Aerospace, the College of Engineering and Mines, the Northern Plains Center for Behavioral Research, and the Center for Innovation.

The Center also collaborates with the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Fargo Air National Guard, both designated UAS bases. UND has also been invited to collaborate in UAS research and development with several private sector partners, including Lockheed Martin, Frasca International, Inc., and Alion Science and Technology.

In addition, UND Aerospace collaborates with the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Center of Excellence for General Aviation Research (CGAR) on integrating UAS into the national airspace system; and with Mayo Clinic for a Flight Medicine Residency incorporating UAS training.

“The University of North Dakota has over 40 years in manned aviation education,” Palmer said. “From this experience stems a well-established aviation industry reputation and a long-term relationship with the FAA, allowing enhanced airspace access.”

UND also is unique in the world with its UAS Research Compliance Committee. It’s a standing committee of the Division of Research and Economic Development.

The committee reviews all research using UAS conducted by any members of the University including faculty, staff and students. Without explicit committee approval, such research cannot progress. The committee considers the ethical consequences of the proposed research and applies community standards in determining whether a research project may be approved. It comprises local and regional law enforcement, including Grand Forks County Sheriff Robert Rost and community members.

It’s all part of the UND UAS effort in a world-changing technology.

“Unmanned aircraft are having a profound impact on aerospace, and UND is on the leading edge of UAS development,” said Bruce Smith, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “I know of no other college in higher education that could develop a degree program and a training system, in an emerging and complex technology, with this level of success in such a short period of time.”

Juan Miguel Pedraza University & Public Affairs writer

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