North Dakota’s air, farms are increasingly homes for drones

One of the nation’s least populous states, with about 775,000 people, is betting on the future of commercial drones, autonomous farming, and cybersecurity education.

North Dakota is distinguished by its Badlands and flat lands, but high above the sky — 60,000 feet, to be exact — drones are being tested so that they can eventually deliver high-tech medical equipment and specialized drugs to remote outposts of the 19th-largest state in land size.

Helping them to get there is the Biden Administration’s $14.2 billion plan to bring higher-speed, lower-cost internet to all corners of the U.S. via 20 providers including AT&T Inc.
Comcast Corp.
and Verizon Communications Inc.

North Dakota’s economy is “off the rails, with a demand-shift urgency for cleaner fuels,” James Leiman, commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce. “We want people to know we’re more than just the movie, ‘Fargo’”, the 1996 black comedy crime film that won two Academy Awards.

North Dakota and its largest city are reshaping their legacy with $40 billion in announced projects, and another $20 billion in the works. The state’s gross domestic product was $55.7 billion last year. The wave of large deals are led by Cerilon Inc.’s plan to develop a major gas-to-liquids complex with an initial phase estimated at $2.8 billion, and construction of the $1.9 billion Atlas Power Data Center to be built by FX Solutions Inc.

“For forever, we have been this great white space up north that no one has reached, and we’re OK with that,” says state native Steve Kemp, founder of Wellspring Hydro who is developing a $220 million waste-water plant in Trenton, N.D., for 2025.

Kemp and others credit the recent string of success to Republican Governor Doug Burgum, who as CEO of Great Plains Software, sold it to Microsoft Corp.
for $1.1 billion in 2001. Fargo remains the second-largest Microsoft campus in the U.S., with about 2,000 employees.

“The global investment community and markets are demanding low carbon energy,” Burgum said recently. “North Dakota is well-positioned to be a global leader and coveted location for businesses who are looking to expand and respond to the many factors that are currently shaping the future of energy.”

In the sky above, North Dakota’s air space is populated with Northrop Grumman Corp.
RQ-4 GlobalHawk and General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are being tested for military and commercial use.

One particularly intriguing commercial use is in rural health care.

Thomas Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky, the nation’s first fully operational commercial UAS (unmanned aerial system) research and development park, envisions the delivery of highly sophisticated medical equipment and specialized heart medicines via cargo drones to remote parts of the state.

“This is a state that is eager to grow beyond just agriculture and energy,” Swoyer says. “They are life blood industries and important, but it is equally important to take advantage of the strong aviation ecosystem here and for it to blossom and spread to other operations.”

New investments in the state often come to “those who think 2, 3, 4 steps ahead of where the market will arrive,” Swoyer added. “The state is listening to those of us anticipating the future.”

Autonomous vehicles in the air and on the ground are crucial in a sparsely populated big state like North Dakota.

The Grand Farm Education and Research Initiative, specializing in research and development of future tools for farms, is talking with makers of driverless trucks, tractors and digging excavators to help farmers maximize their crops without onerous investments. “We like to think of ourselves as the Moneyball of agriculture,” says Grand Farm Director Brian Carroll.

On 40 acres that serve as a test site, Grand Farm brings together farmers, technology companies, universities and government agencies to come with the “hairy, audacious goal” of digitally transforming the production of crops and cattle, according to Carroll. Its solutions are geared toward feeding more people, making better predictions of volatile weather, minimizing crop disease, and coping with a recent surge in ransomware aimed at agriculture co-ops. The initiative has forged partnerships with Microsoft, Alphabet Inc.’s Google

North Dakota State University, Palo Alto Networks Inc.
and others.

Up the highway in Fargo, Kevin Biffert’s 701x startup has helped create.startup has helped create an electronic tag to track livestock. The tag, attached to a cow’s ear, monitors their movements and health patterns via Verizon technology. If successful in the Midwest, Biffert plans to ramp up production and tackle the No. 1 cattle market in Brazil.

“There are not a lot of successful entrepreneurs in the state,” Biffert says. “But as Fargo has successes, it will lead to more interactions between startups, industries and government officials.”

One such example of private startup meeting education and government agencies is Be More Colorful, an internet marketing service that is providing virtual-reality content on jobs and college campuses.

The videos focus on workforce development experiences for potential careers in petroleum engineering, welding and other vocations, says company CEO Matt Chaussee. “There is a lot of work on cool VR hardware out there, but not a lot of content,” he said. “That’s where we come in.”

But Be More Colorful, which plans to triple its library of content to about 70 job categories in the next year, only got its start when Matt and his wife, Katie, sold their house and moved into an apartment with their two kids and dog.

Jim Higgins, co-founder and chief operating officer Airtonomy Inc., one of the few software companies in the Fargo area, can identify. The company, which develops software for drone data management, has managed to raise $10.9 million despite no contributions from coastal venture capitalists.

“VCs told me, ‘If I have to jump on a plane to visit you, forget it,’” Higgins said of the funding snub.

However, with more than $60 billion in projects coming the state’s way, as well as more high-speed internet access, local entrepreneurs sense a turn in investors’ attitudes. They just need to do a better job of letting the rest of the country know, argues a state official.

“North Dakota needs to do a better job of promoting itself; we’re just not good at marketing ourselves, we are very humble,” says Shawn Riley, chief information officer for the State of North Dakota Information Technology Department.

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