North Dakota Ranks Highest in Drone Experts

North Dakota has a population of 760,000 and more than 39 million acres of agricultural land. That's perfect for drone research, testing, and experimentation.

GUILLAUME SOUVANT/AFP/Getty Images

North Dakota has become one of the country’s leading states in drone experts. It makes sense, as North Dakota is a rural place where the population of 760,000 is minuscule in relation to its more than 39 million acres of land. This allows for drones to be both tested more often and more in-depth, but also benefits from the appeal drones hold for farmers there. In other words, farmers are aware of what an efficiency-boosting tool that unmanned aerial vehicles can be for business, and boy is there a lot of business to be had in North Dakota.

According to USA Today, the main areas of focus related to drones in the state are research, experimentation, and testing. Of course, farming being a huge factor of the state’s output, there’s an immediate attraction to agriculture regarding the UAV industry there. There are, after all, around 30,000 farms that could benefit from a tool as efficient as your standard UAV, but North Dakota is using some slightly-more sophisticated drones than what you might be used to.

Reportedly, the drones being used are equipped with sensors capable of infrared visibility, have significantly longer flight times than a common consumer drone, and have greater maneuverability. Apparently, these sensors are of such a high caliber that farmers can already see the exact amount of cornstalks being grown on any given acre. If true, that’s an incredible advantage to have, as it can allow a farmer and his business to know precisely how much to spend on fertilizer or fuel for the upcoming month. This seems like a huge selling point. 

“You don’t just get a pretty picture. You get a pretty picture of an exact place on Earth,” Kaci Lemler, the COO of North Dakota-based drone company Field of View told USA Today. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t played fast and loose with allowing just anyone to massively research, experiment and test fleets of drones. However, it seems that pockets of North Dakota have been granted special exceptions in the form of waiving standard restrictions. This allows for beyond-line-of-sight testing, as well as nighttime flights. 

“This industry is moving at the speed of technology, not bureaucracy,” said Nick Flom to the director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site in Grand Forks, N.D., according to USA Today

It’s clear that people like Flom, or futurist Thomas Frey who predicts a billion drones by 2030, are aware of this rapidly increasing drone market. But how does Flom see the specific intersection of North Dakota and drones turning out? 

Flom explains that collectively, “We want to get to a point where a farmer wakes up, pushes a button, and by the time he’s drinking coffee, knows exactly what areas he needs to fertilize.” 

Now if that isn’t an impressive change in our agricultural landscape, I don’t know what is (as a side note, we’ve seen some extremely similar imagery in Rian Johnson’s film Looper, a few years back).

As USA Today reports, North Dakota hosts its fair share of military drone deployment centers, where National Guard operators remotely pilot UAVs around the globe while operators in both Fargo and Grand Forks focus on the drone sensors. These same drone experts are helping researchers and testers of domestic, agriculture-related drones develop some of the advancements regarding autonomous flight and battery-life increases. In addition to corn-filed analysis, wind-farming in North Dakota is being aided by UAVs, as well.