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GF attracts another UAS firm: Official says area will attract more businesses in UAS industry this year

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota Center of Innovation has added another tenant in the unmanned aircraft system industry to its facility and officials say that company won’t be the last addition this year.

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The center signed an agreement with Virginia-based software company VirtualAgility earlier this month and the company is already using office space in the tech incubator, according to its CEO Stuart Rudolph.

At this point, he couldn’t speculate how many people the Grand Forks office would employ. VirtualAgility will join several other UAS companies already working in the building.

As the year progresses, Center for Innovation CEO Bruce Gjovig said he expects more businesses to seek out the tech incubator.

Of the 140 work stations in the facility, 20 empty spaces have been set aside for UAS-related startups Gjovig predicts will arrive in 2014.

In the work spaces, those startups could grow from one- or two-person offices to larger enterprises that potentially could move out into the community or into Grand Sky, a UAS technology and business park planned for Grand Forks Air Force Base.

This activity in Grand Forks is a glimpse of North Dakota’s expanding UAS industry in which the state has invested more than $14 million in research and development.


Each new company setting up shop in North Dakota tends to have a different specialty.

“We haven’t got very many competing companies,” Gjovig said of those locating in the Center for Innovation.

Instead, each one seems to be biting off a piece of bigger, more complex systems.

VirtualAgility, for example, produces software platforms designed to simplify data capturing, sharing and reporting processes for unmanned vehicles.

Other companies may make specialized cameras or sensors for mounting on aircraft, software to train people how to fly them or systems for storing and analyzing data.

Each emerging specialty creates the potential for new customers and more jobs.

“It’s a race to be the first with experience and to do something that is functional and works well for customers, Gjovig said.

The state’s financial investment combined with the experience of UAS leaders and businesses in the state is what attracted Rudolph to the area.

“It’s the quality of the people. There’s an understanding of what needs to be done,” he said, adding he was impressed by the state’s “commitment to succeed” in the UAS industry.

Giving North Dakota’s reputation another boost is the fact it also is now home to the country’s first operational UAS test site. Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta gave his nod of approval during a press conference last week at UND.

Economic impact

Putting a dollar amount on the economic impact of the national UAS industry isn’t an exact science.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says the economic impact of all drone use in the United States could total more than $13.6 billion from 2015 to 2017.

Forecasting out even further, the organization predicts that number would be closer to $82 billion between 2015 and 2025.

Job creation is included in those figures, which predictions put at a total 100,000 new positions by 2025.

The AUVSI report predicts UAS activities will create 71 direct and indirect jobs in the North Dakota between 2015 and 2017.

Those predictions are based only on current aerospace employment numbers and do not factor in the effect of test sites, regulations and tax incentives crafted to attract businesses.

“States that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will likely siphon jobs away from states that do not,” the report says.

In 2010, a report from the state Aeronautics Commission estimated that 231 UAS-related jobs in North Dakota created $27.1 million in total economic impact.

The number of current UAS in the state wasn’t available from the commission or the state Department of Commerce, but commission director Kyle Wanner said it’s safe to say the number is probably higher than 231.