This North Dakota Drone Hub Could Be Ground Zero For The Robotic Takeover Of America

Face it, people: We’re entering a world of robots, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Recently, the folks at the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce were nice enough to fly me to Grand Forks so they could heap praise on their drone infrastructure to national news reporters.

North Dakota is aiming to be one of six sites where the FAA will test drones with the goal of integrating them into U.S. airspace, and it most likely will be selected for this economic windfall.

Now I had long considered myself a staunch anti-drone activist, both here and abroad, due to concerns for privacy and debatable war tactics.

The researchers, veterans, and students in Grand Forks, however, may have started to change my mind. Highly professional and dedicated, they are committed to the idea that drones — excuse me, “Unmanned Aerial Systems” — can improve everything from agriculture to telecom to, yes, surveillance and war.

Here at the University of North Dakota University Center for Aerospace Sciences these indoor tubes connecting buildings stand as tacit admission of the unflinching cold.

Here's what the campus looks like in reduced size.

It is one of the leading aviation schools in the world, hosting pilots from several different countries.

Grand Forks itself has played host to the Wright brothers exhibition team as well as America's Minute Man nuclear missile defence silos.

Recently, the FAA launched its roadmap to UAV integration, which included a pledge to select six official test sites, among at least 25 applicants.

North Dakota -- the professionals, professors and government executives argue -- doesn't need to build new infrastructure for this coming innovation ...

... existing facilities already support the mission.

The aviation school has several on-site flight simulators.

Any student who completes the aviation curriculum comes out as licensed commercial pilot ...

... to include those who take the newly formed major in Unmanned Aerial Systems.

The flight school's dedication is to general flight first, not drones.

Still, students like Kaci Lemler are excited about using drones for things like solving world hunger through 'precision agriculture.'

Elements throughout the media tour remind me how close these people are to their land and their state.

With vast swaths of flat, cold ground, miles of crops can be ruined by water or runoff or misplaced resources.

The argument goes that drones with specialised 'sensors' could easily help farmers pinpoint where crops need help.

A deep love of country also seems to run through the students and officials.

Students like Andrew Regenhard look skyward and see a future filled with domestic drones ...

Not so much the multi-eyed monsters peering down from above ...

... more like this six-rotored robot Regenhard built out of RadioShack items and a few hundred dollars of electronics.

He tells a crowd of other journalists how tools like these are essential and inevitable parts of America's future.

And they don't have to carry bombs or x-ray cameras. The students explain how stratospheric, long-term drones could replace cell phone towers in the future of mobile.

Even the ones used for law enforcement aren't incredibly intimidating.

This bird doesn't fit the imposing image we generally see in the media.

Nonetheless drones like this can and will take to the skies to support both private and public endeavours.

This tablet shows a remote view of what the drone sees.

Here our group is shown as the hot white figures in the infrared camera.

There are, of course, legal and ethical kinks to work out prior to putting thousands of drones in the sky.

Much to-do was made when Customs and Border Protection inherited drones from the U.S. military.

That infamous red button is not much use here though. One pilot tells me, 'We'll go weeks without seeing anything, then all of a sudden ... moose.'

Meanwhile, on the ground, several people can monitor flights around the world while simultaneously watching Fox News.

The small city is also home to several outfits of U.S. Army reconnaissance as well combat drone units.

They all seem to prefer calling fixed-wing drones 'planes.' Here, the MQ-9 Reaper is a total beast.

It's really hard to believe I'm this close to one, and off to the side, I hear pilots referring to the media visit as a 'petting zoo.'

Untold money went the development of an eye that can target you from 50,000 feet.

On the bottoms of the wings are the points where missiles connect.

The propeller takes the drone to speeds approaching 300 mph.

The most low-tech portion of the drone is the rollerblade wheel on the bottom of the tail.

This behemoth is the Global Hawk, responsible for some of the world's most cutting edge aerial intelligence and reconnaissance.

The Global Hawks' cheapest part seems to be these plastic prongs that kill static electricity.

The Air Force has made moves to ditch the Global Hawk in favour of the cheaper U-2 spy plane, but some, notably lawmakers backed by the defence lobby, are fighting to keep them.

We all beg for a chance to fly the predator simulator, which we're told is 'almost exactly' the same as actual flight.

Verdict: actual flight of a predator is incredibly boring. Most of the flying is done with buttons actually. I couldn't wait to move on.

Our next stop is a combat unit dubbed (oddly) the Happy Hooligans.

The MQ-1 is the smaller, less sturdy, and less deadly version of the MQ-9.

Operators push this plane out to the tarmac by hand, no tow necessary.

Here's what it looks like with its scalp pealed back. Basically that dish is what keeps it connected to guys on the ground.

Operators tell me that they practice here, but when they fly a mission, deployed operators will first take off, then hand the link over to operators in Grand Forks.

Most of the operators prefer that no one knows exactly what 'planes' they fly, so friends and family usually just think they're Air Force 'pilots.'

One of the journos graciously volunteers to get looked at with the IR camera.

On the front of the drone is what's called a 'horse hair' -- it's how pilots can tell 'if they suck' during landings. The black circle behind it houses a camera that monitors the movement of the hair as pilots take control of the plane.

I can't help but notice that at the base's gate, old WWII planes sit, gazing blankly.

Paint jobs hale to a time long passed.

Our last stop is the airport where UND students complete their flight hours.

You can tell these people don't mind drones.

Upstairs in the common room you can see just how flat the state is.

And how flight seems a part of the fabric.

You've seen a cutting edge drone school ...

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