Three years or so ago, at a conference in Las Vegas, Mark Erjavec was looking for a place to settle his drone company, Aero Fleet One. That is where he first met the state’s then Aerospace Business Developer Brian Opp.
“He and his team told me that North Dakota is the place to be for drone companies,” Erjavec said.
Opp’s pitch worked and, on Tuesday, Oct. 15, Erjavec and Tioga’s economic developer Dennis Lindahl, were among a select group of presenters tapped for an Industry Day devoted to a deeper dive into drones and the beyond visual line of sight network the state is constructing.
Erjavec brought one of his large-sized drones to the event, and it was an eyeball catcher, Lindahl told a group of citizens gathered to hear an update on economic development activities in Tioga. That audience included Opp, who is now working with the University of Mary to develop affordable workforce training across the state for communities like Watford City and Tioga.
“Anyone who was anyone in drones was at that conference yesterday,” Lindahl said. “We had lots of compliments, and lots of people knew what we were doing. There was a lot of good feedback.”
Erjavec, meanwhile, talked about how exciting the future for drones is in northwestern North Dakota.
“As you know, a lot of the people there were oriented to the eastern part of the state,” Erjavec said. “That gave us a great opportunity to talk about opportunities here specifically related to the energy industry out here.”
While Erjavec’s company is presently centered on agricultural operations from Brazil to Canada, he sees limitless opportunities opening up for drones in the energy industry once beyond visual line of sight is a reality.
“This territory here is very unique because of all the energy-related businesses,” Erjavec said. “That is not so common in other places in the world. So being able to test and do things here with that would be very unique and unusual.”
Erjavec’s drones, for example, could be used to fly very low to the ground, carrying sensors for long distances to “smell” gas emissions along a pipeline, he said. The drones could also be used to check on the well being of hundreds of oil wells that an operator may have, spread across a wide area.
“If you want to fly those kinds of missions, you are talking about long distances. You have to have the equipment that will actually make the trek,” he said. “Our drones are very large, and we are uniquely qualified to fly long distances, which is really the future of all this.”
Lindahl said the North Dakota Commerce Department made clear during the Drone Industry Day that the energy sector will be a priority for the state’s developing network to enable beyond visual line of sight drone flights.
“The state has budgeted $33 million into UAS development,” Lindahl said. “So there will be an RFP process for entities to apply for funding.”
Once the criteria for that is known, Lindahl plans to develop a proposal for Tioga.
Meanwhile, he’s already been working with Erjavec to set up an adult training academy for drone pilots. Because the drones that Aero Fleet One uses are so large, the training will include actual pilot certification as well the drone certification.
In conjunction with the training academy, Lindahl wants to develop either a bubble or corridor for drones to fly beyond visual line of sight in Tioga.
“BVLOS can be established anywhere because North Dakota has approval for it by the FAA,” Lindahl said. “So these bubbles or corridors can be developed anywhere.”
A bubble might be 10 miles around Tioga for training purposes, Lindahl said. But he’s also open to the idea of working in concert with Williston on a corridor.
“We understand that there may be opportunities for a tech park at the old airfield,” Lindahl said. “We would like to work closely with them on that if we can. So maybe phase 1 would be a bubble for Tioga, and phase two a corridor with Williston. And then phase 3 a corridor in conjunction with Watford City.”