Welcome To Drone-Kota

A cottage industry wants to put North Dakota on the map

drone and a herd of bison
Drone on the rangeJonathon Kambouris

I.

In the downtown Fargo office of the startup Botlink, engineers, code writers, and executives huddled around me, thrusting a tablet to show off their app, an air traffic control interface that allows even the least skilled to fly a drone without crashing it into a plane.

“Real-time data distribution,” said one. “The orange circles show restricted airspace around airports. You want a beer? A Coke?” With the exception of the executives, all sharp smiles and good hair, the entourage was pure geek: sneakers and hoodies that limited exposure to sunlight and, in the Zuckerberg era, seemed to suggest imminent innovation and subsequent riches.

I had arrived in North Dakota last June, in the same week MarketWatch declared it the “Silicon Valley of drones.” At each stop I was regaled with the vocabulary of promise—disruptive tech, green fields, incubators, and accelerators. In the booming economy of drone technology, North Dakota has been an early and enthusiastic adopter. The Federal Aviation Administration chose it as one of six official drone test sites, and the entire state permits unmanned flights at night and at altitudes of 1,200 feet (as opposed to daylight and up to 200 feet, as per the rest of the nation). The U.S. Air Force, Air National Guard, and border patrol all pilot drones from Grand Forks Air Force Base. Adjacent to that, Northrup Grumman is building a facility as the anchor tenant at the Grand Sky unmanned aerial systems business and aviation park—the nation’s first. And the University of North Dakota launched the nation’s first undergraduate program in drone piloting in 2009.

The state Department of Commerce pointed me to Botlink as an example of “the vibrancy of the sector,” so I followed the team of coders into the creaky elevator of their prewar building and drove with them to a city park. There, they hefted a quadcopter from the trunk, laid it on grass, and fired up the rotors. But something wasn’t meshing with the smartphone, so an engineer named Tandy bent over to shut it down. When he reached into the rotors, he yelped—blood shot through the air. He sucked on his finger and spat red, and finally someone asked, “Do you need a bandage, dude?”

DX9 transmitter and notebook
A DX9 transmitter (used to fly a quadcopter) alongside a student pilot’s notebook.Tim Gruber/The New York Times/Redux

The question was moot because nobody had a bandage, but one guy offered a wadded-up napkin from his jeans pocket. It was quickly soaked red. No matter. The drone again whirred to life and soared skyward. Before it could cross the lawn, the pilot detected that the app was not communicating with the drone—an earlier crash broke the antenna—so he landed the thing manually, packed it up, and we drove back to the office. It was not exactly the sort of tech disruption I had imagined. But my tour of North Dakota had just begun—and even the Wright Brothers crashed a few planes, right?

II.

Thanks to the shale oil boom, North Dakota’s economy and population has led the nation in growth—the state leapfrogged Alaska to become our 47th largest. Just as crude is fracked to the surface, so is money fracked to the east, where roughnecks deposit wives and children in the leafy lanes and solid schools of Fargo and Grand Forks, far from the oily man-camps. Now, as oil prices plummet and production drops off, North Dakota sees drones as its chance to develop a bust-proof tech sector.

It is worth noting here that nobody official calls them drones. They say unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Drones, as one pilot told me, is a four-letter word around these parts. Another conceded the word had a “delicate public perception.”

Nobody calls them drones. That’s a four-letter word around these parts.

Grand Forks exudes warmth and trust—a tidy little city: not too rich, not too poor. As I cruised its broad streets listening to Polka Hour on the radio, I saw evidence everywhere of prosperity. As just one informal yardstick, the city of 56,000 boasts three sushi joints. I stayed in a spanking-new motel out by the interstate, in a cluster of similar motels plunked down like Monopoly pieces on freshly poured concrete. Upon registration I was required to sign a paper promising not to smuggle a hockey stick into my room. A sign in the elevator read: “We suggest that if your plans are to ‘PARTY’ after midnight, that you please take it to somewhere else. Be respectful of others and everyone will have a great stay.”

That could be the state’s motto.

The North Dakotans I met are pursuing their quixotic quest with archetypal Midwestern pluck. A professor of aviation gifted me a school medallion stamped “VENTURUM TEMPUS PROSPECTUS: Looking to the Future.” A brigadier general said that folks here were not just nice, but North Dakota nice.

This flat state’s chief selling point as a nascent drone industry, though, might not be what it has, but what it lacks: There are fewer people and things to collide with should your craft, as one airman put it, “come into contact with the ground.” Indeed, one of the first things you’ll see, speeding away from Grand Forks airport, is a red, white, and blue building that screams GENEROUS GERRY’S FIREWORKS SUPERSTORE, and you’ll think, “Ah yes, come here to do dangerous stuff that is elsewhere banned.”

drone in a field
Pilot field training, literally, near grazing cattle.Mark Sundeen

For many years the only drone users were the military and hobbyists, who were largely unregulated. Then in 2014, the FAA began to issue special exemptions to existing regulations. By the time I got to Grand Forks, 664 companies across the nation had been granted exemptions (the figure has since reached 3,000 and continues to climb). But while the companies are allowed to fly—say, for aerial photography or pipeline inspections—they are not allowed to fly out of the pilot’s line of sight. Amazon, for example, can’t make deliveries here. To test experimental delivery aircraft and techniques, Amazon has been working in Canada, the U.K., and Denmark. Smaller companies with fewer resources would probably have to partner with one of the six FAA-approved test sites, such as the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site in Grand Forks.

“Until recently, there was no way for a civilian entity to fly an unmanned aircraft,” the site’s executive director, Robert Becklund, told me. Now that’s changing, and North Dakota is eager to help it along. Becklund—a lean pilot who’s all fighter-jet competence with clipped hair and a crisp black polo—seized my hand. “My suspicion,” he said, “is that by the end of the week, you’ll be pretty enamored with the place.”

III.

The Speedway 805 Grill & Bar is a brick block on shadeless 42nd Street in Grand Forks. The parking lot smelled like bacon. Inside, Matt Dunlevy and Jack Wilcox gulped dark beer from glass steins as big as their heads. They were from SkySkopes, a startup specializing in aerial photography that recently won a commercial exemption from the FAA. Dunlevy wore basketball shorts, a T-shirt, and rubber sandals. Sitting across from him, obscured by a plastic tumbler of Coke, sat SkySkopes’ pilot, Connor Grafius, dressed in an oxford shirt buttoned to the neck. He had a phone against one ear and a finger in the other. “We are looking for a range extension,” Grafius said into the phone. “A blanket COA to 200 feet. You have to exclude the military installations.”

“We’re on the phone with the FAA now,” Dunlevy told me. Two days from now, SkySkopes would fly its first commercial mission: to inspect a cell tower 300 miles west of here in the Oil Patch.

“Your phone sucks,” Grafius said, passing it back to Dunlevy. He sipped from his straw. He drank soda because he was 20 years old. The founders were just a few years older. I liked these guys. They had vision and were starting from nowhere, or close to it. Whereas another flight I was supposed to witness had been scrubbed due to high winds, the SkySkopes team pulled an octocopter from their car when I met them and launched it in about five minutes. Then they let me fly a cheap drone. If their plan panned out, SkySkopes could prevent linemen or pilots from risking their lives to study skybound cables—and make a bucket of money. Their smarts and ambition and enthusiasm made me think they were going to succeed. Forget journalistic objectivity, I wanted them to succeed.

Because drones are evolving quicker than the regulations, Grafius had to explain to the FAA what he was trying to do in order to get permission to do it. They did not know of anyone in the country who had inspected cell towers with drones—at least not legally.

“There’s really no one to ask for advice,” Dunlevy told me.

While Dunlevy was the businessman, Grafius was the ace. A junior in the UAS program at the University of North Dakota, Grafius began flying and building remote-controlled aircraft when he was 15. Then he mounted cameras on his planes and piloted them by feel while wearing a pair of video goggles. Passersby might have been perplexed to wander upon this wispy teen, seemingly blindfolded, operating a stick and throttle, enraptured by what he saw in his headset.

future drone pilots
Future pilots in the University of North Dakota’s drone-flying programTim Gruber/The New York Times/Redux

“It’s the greatest thing I’d ever seen,” Grafius told me as he ate french fries. “The sensation, the peripherals—it’s like you’re flying. When people asked what I was doing, I’d say, ‘Just look into these goggles and you’ll freak out.’”

I asked why other companies weren’t angling for the same business. “We’re hungry,” Dunlevy said. “They’re not.”

IV.

Like everyone else I met in North Dakota, the guys from SkySkopes found nothing controversial about drones. It was just another industry, and if someone was going to have a piece of it, it might as well be them. Yet outside the state, opinion is split. Some see the personal aircraft you can buy for a few hundred bucks as a neat way to film your kid’s soccer game; others fear it’s a means to deliver anthrax and stalk your ex. I fall in the latter camp. So when a professor of aeronautics suggested my visit might “dispel some myths,” I hoped he was right.

The first unmanned aircraft in North Dakota were military; their arrival followed the decommissioning of fighter jets and nuclear missiles. One morning, a toothsome trio of camo-clad handlers chauffeured me around Grand Forks Air Force Base, where the remotely piloted Global Hawk hulked in its hangar. Sleek and streamlined as a bottlenose whale, it is capable of flying all the way to Panama and back on a single tank of gas. The pilot was all smiles. “I’ve launched an aircraft, gone home, had dinner with my wife,” he said, “then gone to sleep, come back the next morning, and landed the same aircraft.”

Military drones inspire their share of anxiety: Like many Americans, I was taken aback when the FBI director admitted to Congress that drones had been used for surveillance on U.S. soil. Then-senator Lindsey Graham said, “If I’m president of the United States, and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I’m not gonna call a judge; I’m gonna call a drone, and we will kill you.” I was allowed to sit at a drone simulator and pretend to launch it, but when I peered down on a building, I did not imagine myself the patriot gathering intel, but rather the mope in the crosshairs.

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, what’s the big deal?”

Wherever I went, my fears were met with upbeat assurances. Back at the Test Site, Becklund had said: “Privacy concerns will be handled by the courts. Will drones get in the hands of the wrong people? I’m sure they will. But from a government point of view, privacy is not a big issue.”

“If you’re not doing anything wrong, what’s the big deal?” agreed a colleague.

I had reached the limits of Midwestern openness. The Global Hawk pilot declined to divulge the purpose of flights over North America. Because of nondisclosure agreements, Becklund could not tell me what kind of research companies were conducting at the Test Site. Two Botlink guys told me they piloted Predator drones from the Air National Guard base in Fargo but weren’t supposed to reveal specifics.

This impenetrability was further tangled by a Gordian Knot of agencies. The Test Site is not actually a brick-and-mortar proving ground with hangars and runways, but rather an amorphous entity mandated by the FAA, in partnership with UND Aerospace, ND State University, ND Aeronautics Commission, ND Aviation Council, and the Adjutant General of the ND National Guard, but largely funded by the ND Department of Commerce, which also funds Grand Sky business park. The Test Site is housed adjacent to, but not inside, UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education, and Training, and both are connected by tunnel-bridge to the Center for Innovation, a project of InnovateND, also partially funded by the Department of Commerce. Both the Air National Guard and Customs and Border Protection operate various types of Predators at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, where UND researchers have been developing a drone flight simulator.

Got it?

The more I asked, the less I learned. I eventually found out that the unarmed border-patrol drone introduced as an MQ-9 Predator B was referred to by the USAF as the MQ-9 “Reaper.”

It made me wonder: Why are we droning Canada anyway? Customs and Border Protection deployed a Predator B to resolve a standoff with a North Dakota rancher. Another border-patrol pilot told me he’d assisted with “some meth, some gun cases, some pot.” Department of Homeland Security reported that border drones cost $12,000 per hour to fly—five times the original estimate—and that the agency “cannot demonstrate how much the program has improved border security.”

North Dakota was beginning to feel more like the Pentagon than Palo Alto. Yet even Grand Forks Air Force Base was disarmingly pleasant. Looking out the truck window to take in the verdant view, I asked my camouflaged handlers, “Is that really a golf course?”

“Yes.”

“Eighteen holes?”

“I want to say it’s nine.”

V.

Two days later, I drove west with the SkySkopes team. Flare stacks from the oil field threw yellow fire into the sky. At the gas station in an outpost called Ray, they donned yellow safety vests. Grafius in particular did not look much like a roughneck. He wore a checked oxford, tan Levis, and unlaced boat shoes. At the pump, he nearly collided with a man packing two firearms. “He looked me right in the eye,” Grafius reported, “and was like, ‘What are you doing out here?’”

The story I’d been told about North Dakota’s entrepreneurial blossoming was not quite holding together. I learned that of the 664 commercial drone operators in the U.S., only three were based in North Dakota. That struck me as a small market share for a place heralding itself as the upstart of the startups. What’s more, two of them were existing companies; only SkySkopes started up recently.

Nonetheless, I felt a thrill heading out to a job with the SkySkopes team. In their hands, drones didn’t seem like sinister weapons, but brilliant gadgets to make life fun and easy. That day I read about California lifeguards who, using a drone, had spotted a shark and cleared swimmers from the water. Johns Hopkins was investigating the transport of human blood for transfusions in Uganda. I could get behind this.

We drove down a gravel road to where a cell tower rose from the fields. A tattooed tech with a ponytail held up a waiver that I signed without reading. Two older men arrived in a pickup. The problem, they explained, was water. Strands of black cable snaked to the top of the tower. Rainwater had entered the plastic sheath and poured into the circuits below. Was it faulty weatherstripping? Or had the cable been nicked through careless installation? Thousands of towers—millions of dollars—hinged on the answer. It would cost $1,500 to send up a climber who might not figure it out.

Grafius hefted a black case from the back of the car, wheeled it across the gravel, and opened the lid, revealing the octocopter. He straightened its spindly legs, tipped in red. SkySkopes did not build the drone; they bought it online. Grafius’ talent was mounting and interfacing the camera, gimbal, and software.

“You have done towers before, right?” one of the workmen asked.

“Yeah,” said Grafius.

“Is it easy to fly one of these things?”

“Not by a tower.”

“How close can you get?”

“Very close,” Grafius said. “Does this tower produce any frequency in the spectrum of 2.4 gigahertz?”

“You guys have insurance in case something goes wrong?” the man asked in return.

“Up to 2 million,” Dunlevy interjected.

As the workmen beheld the eight-legged creature, their skepticism softened. That’s the thing about drones: They’re cool. Everyone stooped to examine it.

“That’s a pretty mean gadget,” said the tech.

Grafius powered the drone and a melody beeped.

“Clear,” he said. “Powering up.”

The thing whirred like a hummingbird as its eight rotors spun. Then it lifted off. As Grafius slipped on his sunglasses and piloted it upward, the rest of us did the only thing male humans can do upon encountering an unmanned craft: We took pictures.

Grafius’ gaze alternated between the drone and a real-time video feed. Wilcox operated the camera. Grafius gave commands. “I want you to look down at those guy wires. Look straight. Now look up.”

“I always get scared,” said Dunlevy, pacing.

Grafius was as cool and crisp as a mint hundred-dollar bill. A workman peered at the video and said: “There. Right there. That’s what I need.” Grafius held the drone steady, and Wilcox zoomed in on the junction where the cable entered the steel housing. “Yes, that’s it.” There was a sense of wonder, the marvel of technology—the magic really—that we could be seeing in such detail 20 stories off the ground. These magnificent lads and their flying machines!

The drone wove between steel wires as it climbed. Depth perception was impossible. Grafius propped his Ray Bans on his forehead and studied the monitor, saying to Wilcox: “Look up. OK, look level.” He lowered the glasses and held up a hand to block the sun.

The drone wove between steel cell-tower wires. And then I heard a thwack.

Then I heard a thwack way up high. My head snapped up just in time to see the octocopter spinning out of control.

“Uh-oh,” said Grafius. He throttled up and pulled it away from the tower. The drone lurched and swiveled. Rotors whined, landing gear deployed. Before I could count to five, the thing slammed down in the wheat, bounced, and toppled in a heap.

VI.

Back on the road, we had lunch at a pizza place in Minot. SkySkopes was unfazed, as was my faith in them. No one was hurt, the tower and wheat field were not harmed, and the damage to the drone amounted to only $35. Had they packed more spare parts, they could have repaired the thing on the spot. They scheduled to finish the job a month later. “Another thing,” said Grafius, sipping a Coke. “We need parachutes.”

From what I’d seen, the North Dakota drone industry had lots of promise. In fact, since my visit last year, the Botlink guys said they had perfected their software, quadrupled their staff of engineers, and had moved from glitchy prototype to actual app-controlled devices shipped to real customers.

But I had also found the state oddly insulated from the national debate over drones. Activists have protested Northrup Grumman and General Atomics in California, but not here. The chair of a committee that regulates drone use around Grand Forks told me there had been little conflict. Anyway, she said, we are constantly photographed in banks and malls, and our smartphones track us better than any aircraft could.

“Well, yeah,” I sputtered, “but we choose to purchase a smartphone, same as we choose to use the Internet or drive a car. No one ever chose to be looked at from the sky.”

She looked at me as if I were an Amish person explaining why suspenders were godly but belts were of the devil. There’s a sense in the north country, as the elevator sign said, that if we respect one another, we’ll have a great stay.

On my trip home in the airport shuttle, a mounted camera winked at me. I had come north afraid drones would enable my country to invade my privacy, only to learn my privacy was already compromised—usually with my consent. Octocopter ads flooded my Facebook feed. Someone may well be watching, but it’s not them—it’s us.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Popular Science.