Drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or UAS (unmanned aerial systems) are often associated with military operations in the public mind. Though the controversy surrounding the use of drones in overseas operations has been in the news for some time, the technology has also been part of a wide array of civilian ventures for years.

Drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or UAS (unmanned aerial systems) are often associated with military operations in the public mind. Though the controversy surrounding the use of drones in overseas operations has been in the news for some time, the technology has also been part of a wide array of civilian ventures for years.

In Devils Lake, Lake Region State College has been employing drones in its Precision Ag program for at least five years, according to president Dr. Doug Darling.

“We’ve worked with a number of different style drones in both livestock production and crop production,” Darling said.

Unmanned aircraft are useful in a number of operations, and with agriculture operations the technology is employed for data collection and visual inspection of crops, among other uses. The purpose is to increase efficiency, and Darling says that the college has been exploring a potential expansion of the program.

“We had a Department of Labor grant to get the program up and running, looking at the different precision technologies to see what actually has a return of investment for the producer and what doesn’t,” Darling said.

Another advantage of drones is in wind turbine inspection. Not only are drones more efficient than a physical inspection of the towers, Darling says that they are much safer.

“They’re starting to use the small UAVs to inspect the (wind) towers and the blades, because they can actually get better quality pictures and video and it’s safer than having technicians hanging from ropes, sliding down the blades,” Darling said. “The traditional way of inspecting blades takes a full day to do all three blades on one turbine. They were able to do ours in two hours with a drone, so they can do three or four a day versus one a day.

“It saves thousands of dollars and it also mitigates the potential of having somebody injured,” Darling added. “It’s an incredible safety and insurance issue.”

The college is also looking to integrate drone technology into their already existing simulation technology program. Darling envisions training students from around the region and beyond in drone operations.

The idea is to train and license drone operators to work with a technology that may be coming to the Lake Region in the future, in agriculture and other sectors.

“Our role is to support the businesses that are here and that are coming here and provide trained employees,” Darling said. “We’re looking at developing a course to train folks to be able to pass the exam to become a UAV certified operator.”

Though drone technology is well established in LRSC’s Precision Ag program, the opening of Grand Sky, which specializes in drone operations, at Grand Forks Air Force Base may lead to opportunities for the technology to make its way to Devils Lake.

Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, two major players in the drone industry, are involved with Grand Sky, and local officials want a piece of the pie in order to advance the city’s economic development plans.

Mayor Richard Johnson, who says that he and others have met with some of the key players at Grand Sky, believes that Devils Lake has a good chance to be involved with drone technology that originates there.

“It’s a big opportunity,” Johnson said. “Grand Forks can’t handle it all, we know that.”

There are few specifics on what kinds of drone-related business the city may be a part of in the future, but Johnson clearly wants to Devils Lake to be involved.

“We have Camp Grafton, (and they) got a mention from one of these big developers who is actually managing the whole Grand Sky operation. We’re on their radar screen,” Johnson said. “It’s all in the infant stages, (but) there’s so many possibilities. It’s starting to get momentum.”

Airport manager John Nord, who also serves as board president of Forward Devils Lake, shares the mayor’s enthusiasm.

“This project is so big (that) there is going to be so much overflow from it,” Nord said. “We’re only about 70 miles from Grand Sky.

“We want to stay in their face, let them know that we’re here, let them know that we’re willing to work with them,” Nord added.

Forward Devils Lake executive director Rachel Lindstrom says that officials from Grand Forks have already visited the city to discuss future drone-related development.

“We had Grand Forks representatives come and speak to our board to educate us on what Grand Forks economic development is doing to be a player in it, and how they see us being able to work into this,” Lindstrom said. “They’re really doing a regional platform. They’re reaching out the helping hand and trying to help us get started.”

Other than agriculture and military use, it is unclear as of now just how the city would be involved with drone technology. Training drone operators at LRSC is one part of future plans, but Lindstrom offered some others.

“On the industrial park side of it we have land available, and Grand Sky does not have the ability to do anything above light manufacturing because it is part of the Grand Forks Air Force base,” Lindstrom said. “We have the availability if someone wanted to come in and manufacture parts for these UAVs, or in some respect manufacture something to support the industry.”

For that to work, Darling says that it would be key for Northrop Grumman or General Atomics to keep Devils Lake in mind on the manufacturing side as part of the supply chain.

He also mentioned the major boon to the local economy if that were to develop.

“With the defense contractors and those big things you’ll see supply chain members gear up to do things closer to where Northrop is and closer to where General Atomics is. So it might be a fit for some of that here,” Darling said. “When you have a large employer come into a community and then you’ve got another 500 employees come in, there’s more restaurant business, more retail business.”

Although city officials and others in the community are thinking big when it comes to Grand Sky and incorporating drone technology for commercial use in Devils Lake, they caution that nothing is imminent.

“We know that it’s not today, tomorrow or the next day, but it’s coming. We want to make sure we’re educated and ready to move forward if something does develop,” Lindstrom said. “It’s an industry that’s up and coming, and we’re really watching it. It’s only going to get bigger.”