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How UND’s Work With Unmanned Aviation Is Shaping Agriculture

Mark Kennedy

Photo by J. Alan Paul Photography

While UND is not an agricultural school like NDSU, through their aviation program and research in unmanned aerial systems, they are playing an important role with Grand Farm. We talked with outgoing UND President Mark Kennedy about how Grand Sky and Grand Farm are more similar than just in name, the role of higher education in 21st-century jobs and why North Dakota’s economy needs this ag tech innovation. 

Q: Universities are handcuffed by funding. Talk about why funding research efforts are important to the state. 

A: If you look at the two big industries that drive this state – agriculture and energy – both of those are among the most likely to be automated. The research that I have shows that we’re second behind only Alaska in both jobs within the oil patch and agriculture. 

As someone automates those industries, they’re likely to start where the cost of labor is the highest and besides Alaska, we stand the risk in North Dakota to having our jobs be automated going into the new economy. Who’s going to create that new economy where those new jobs are going to reside? When jobs are eliminated, there’s somebody else picking up and advancing that technology. 

That’s why I think that, of all the states in the union, North Dakota has amongst the highest interest in making sure we’re ahead in this technological race that everybody is engaged in. 

Q: Tell me about some of the research being done on your campus in terms of autonomous vehicles.

A: We focus on autonomous vehicles with a heavy strength on autonomous aircraft and that is being applied, in many ways, to agriculture. In just one case, for example, is Bee Innovative, a company from Australia coming here and partnering with us in terms of pollination. They’re finding that through unmanned surveillance, we can figure out a better, more efficient and complete way to have our fields pollinated. That’s a key part of their growth.

We’re also big into autonomy, sensors and how do you make sure the data coming in is clean and accurate, how can it be transmitted in a safe way, isn’t lost and is protected… That requires computational scientists with the skill to parse through and find exactly the right data points that are going to help us make better decisions. These all feed into many applications, including agriculture. 

Q: There is a lot of comparison being drawn between Grand Sky and Grand Farm. Do you see any similarities and can you talk about those comparisons?

A: I think one of the comparisons is that there’s an unbelievable ecosystem for unmanned in Grand Forks with the Air Base, the nearby National Guard Base, Grand Sky, research that we’re doing at the University with Northrop Grumman and General Atomics joining us and a supportive environment in the city, county and state level. All that pulls together that we have a phenomenal ecosystem. 

Having toured, for example, John Deere Electronic Solutions, much of the technology that drives the large agricultural equipment company in the world is resident in Fargo. If you go to Bobcat, similarly, they are making great advances in the internet of things and how we use data and how we use predictive methods in how we intervene to repair a part before it causes you to stop that machine in the field. 

Between those two companies alone combined with the agronomy and the agricultural knowledge of NDSU, combined with the unmanned expertise at UND and residents in Grand Forks, you pull all those together and there’s no reason why North Dakota couldn’t and shouldn’t be the leader in automating agriculture. 

Q: Elaborate more on what you view UND’s role with Grand Farm and ag tech in our state. 

A: One of the things to emphasize is that the university has partnered with the College of Engineering and Mines to commit to the university 10 million dollars worth of funding to bring in high-end computational researchers that would have a better understanding of artificial intelligence, internet of things, how you use 5G communication technologies, cyber protection of data and analysis of that data. This is going to be a bigger pool of the types of science that’s going to be applied to every field, including the questions being faced at Grand Farm. 

Q: What role does higher education play in preparing workers for these high tech jobs?

A: First of all, we have a situation where there’s a lot of economic angst that drives a lot of the division in the country because technology’s benefits have not been evenly spread. Some benefit greatly from technology and have phenomenal careers and some are feeling left behind in technologies. From an education perspective, we need to work hard in expanding the benefits of technology more broadly across the population. 

We’re also finding that it’s not just a high school graduate coming out, going to college for four years and getting a degree and having one and done. It’s having lifetime learning because technology is advancing so fast that even if you were trained in technology, you’re going to need to get an update in a regular interim cycle. Universities need to really pivot and meet those long-term training needs, which may not be traditional means but other forms of credential or learning.

In the research area, you need to have discoveries and not just with commercialization. Commercialization is important but you perhaps heard me talk about that commercialization is the red zone when you’re in the final 20 yards of trying to get it into the endzone. Unless you’re investing more in the green zone, the first 80 yards, and put ideas that are within reach of being commercialized in the red zone, you’re going to lose. 

If you look at other studies, the state’s new economy index put out by Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has shown that we, as a state, have been falling behind from 34th in 2012 to 38th in the nation in 2017. In many ways, that’s a function in not having that investment in green zone research, not having the discoveries or discoverers upon which to build new companies. Although we rank in the top 10 in terms of new companies starting up, we rank near the bottom 10 in terms of whether they’re fast-growing, attract venture capital and ultimately become a public company. 

If you don’t invest in it now, you may not know it and feel the impact now, but five to 10 years from now, as some of the other states that are having a higher concentration of that green zone investment and research pull away, in terms of their diversification, economy and picking up those new economy jobs, it’ll be perhaps too late then to say, ‘We should have leaned further into research and making sure that all of our employees and citizens are prepared for this new economy that is galloping toward us fast.’

Q: When it comes to Grand Farm and the future of our state with technology, what message do you want to leave with them?

A: I would say that someone is going to provide a more fully autonomous farm. Whoever does and is at the leading edge of that will create jobs and opportunities in that region. If you want your children and grandchildren to be able to find opportunities so they stay home in North Dakota instead of just coming back for the holidays to visit you, we need to be investing in innovative ways that have a potential for mushrooming into future opportunities for employment for our citizens, children and grandchildren.  


2017 State New Economy Index
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation put this index together and it uses 25 indicators to measure the extent to which state economies are knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-drive and innovation-oriented. Below is the ranking of North Dakota and some other states. 

Economy Index

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