Sun., 9:25 pm: For North Dakota, drones a possible growth market

WASHINGTON – Forget the North Dakota energy boom. How about a drone boom?

State and federal officials have big hopes for the growth of what are known as unmanned aircraft systems. And North Dakota has positioned itself well to take advantage of its unique attributes: A first-of-its-kind academic program, an established military presence, a strong commitment from state and federal officials to find funding, and even the weather.

“North Dakota made a conscious decision, several years ago, that they wanted to focus on this,” said Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a group that promotes unmanned systems and robotics. He added, “North Dakota is one of the leaders and a model that we point to.”

The result is a growing footprint for a new and potentially lucrative business: According to a report compiled by AUVSI last year, drones have the potential to create more than 100,000 jobs and more than $80 billion in economic growth between now and 2025. Domestic drones could yield big rewards for states that invest now, said Greg McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University who researches drones.

“Basically, you’re saying that you want to be a hub for technological development, that you want to be the new Silicon Valley,” McNeal said. “And that Silicon Valley might be in North Dakota, but it might not be in a state like Texas because of anti-drone legislation.”

Becoming a nexus of drone research could build on the state’s oil prosperity. Drilling at the Bakken and Three Forks shale formations have led the state’s oil production to surge over the past several years, bringing economic stability, population growth and low unemployment.