The City of Williston is flying into the future in the field of unmanned aviation, thanks to a partnership with Train ND and and a grant from the STAR Fund.
The Williston City Commission awarded up to $450,000 in STAR Fund incentives to two Unmanned Aerial System projects at its meeting on May 10. The projects include a study to identify viable UAS projects and a new drone park adjacent to East Dakota Parkway.
“For years we realized the potential niche for unmanned aerial systems in our area,” said Shawn Wenko, Williston Economic Development executive director. “That niche is being monitoring systems, emergency services systems, and eventually small package delivery. With the introduction of the statewide beyond visual line of site network, called Vantis,we’re seeing a lot of interest in the UAS sector coming to this area, and we’re ripe for development opportunities.”
Williston Economic Development submitted a Request for Proposals (RFP) earlier this year to identify a firm that would identify and define the UAS opportunities in the Williston region. The contract was awarded to Infinity Development Partners (IDP), a Grand Forks-based consulting firm. The Williston STAR Fund allocated up to $300,000 to IDP to conduct the study, which Wenko said had a fairly quick timeline to complete the study.
“For years we realized a potential niche for UAS systems in our area, that niche being monitoring systems, emergency service assistance and eventually small package delivery,” said Wenko. “We were hesitant to launch a major initiative because we always felt it started with infrastructure. With Vantis, that infrastructure is now in place. Today is a big day. It’s our first step into attracting UAS opportunities to Williston.”
The UAS study will research the following: ability to fly UAS from the Williston region, conduct an infrastructure analysis, develop a conceptual operations plan, conduct a UAS market overview, develop feasibility proforma and develop the UAS ecosystem.
The Williston City Commission also approved up to $150,000 from the Williston STAR Fund for a new drone park and training grounds for the ASCENT Unmanned Aeronautical Training Academy at TrainND Northwest. The park will provide flying space for both students and the public. Wenko said that Williston State College is granting the use of the land up to $250,000, and that Train ND had raised about $200,00 for the park through a combination of legislative dollars and matching funds from partners.
Wenko added that the intent was to have work to be done on the park by late summer or early fall. Wenko said Train ND would be maintaining the park at this stage, but that a possible partnership with Parks and Rec may be explored down the road.
“This would work as a pipeline builder for future UAS workforce and value add to Williston,” said Kenley Nebeker, Regional Director for Technical Programs and Training at TrainND Northwest.
Commissioner Chris Brostuen, who serves as PR and Communications Manager with Mountrail Williams Electric Cooperative, shared how drones were essential to providing aid during the most recent winter storms, which took down thousands of power lines around the region. Brostuen said MWEC used a company call Isight, who were able to take “absolute oodles” of pictures of all the damage.
“It was just a massive, massive challenge to get people out to find out where a lot of these poles were down, just to even survey and asses the damage.” He said. “It was so widespread that there was no way humanly possible to get crews out and get people out to see where all the damage was at. It’s just a technology that saves a tremendous amount of time and sped up the process dramatically.”