Drone feasibility in Williston: high risk, high reward

Published: Feb. 21, 2023 at 2:42 PM CST
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WILLISTON, N.D. (KUMV) - The oil boom has propelled northwest North Dakota’s growth for nearly a decade. Now, officials in the region are setting their sights on a new industry that could fuel more economic development.

For nearly a year, Infinity Development Partners worked to compile a nearly 60-page document showing whether or not Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) would be successful in the region. To sum it up, there is a market for drones in northwest North Dakota, but it’s going to take time, dedication, and money to fully capitalize on it.

The region already has several advantages over other states that make it an attractive place for UAS operators. Northwest North Dakota is mainly rural, has infrastructure for the Vantis network installed, and has a pipeline to train local workers through Williston State College and TrainND Northwest’s Ascent Unmanned Aeronautical Academy.

“Any company, any person, any startup, any idea that is out there, we have the training available,” said Kenley

The report also states there are many possibilities for drone businesses including pipeline inspection and agriculture. First responders like the Williston Fire Department also see them as useful for covering large fires.

“It helps us create a safer environment for responders that are going out and allows us to make better tactical decisions based on how the emergency is actually evolving,” said Matt Clark, city of Williston fire chief.

While there are positives, officials will have their work cut out for them to entice companies to put down roots in North Dakota. They will have to convince businesses that dealing with severe winter weather, which can leave UAS grounded for several months, won’t offset other positives. Leaders will also have to inform the public about the usefulness of UAS to earn their support. The biggest challenge may come from funding. Local and state governments may need to incentivize businesses to help them get their footing. The report estimates it could take more than 10 years for them to get a return on investment.

“If we have anything out there that’s very unique and can benefit Williston when we talk diversification or new industry, I think anything is on the table for discussion,” said Shawn Wenko, interim city administrator.

While it is too early for the city to make any big moves, this report encourages Wenko and the Williston City Commission that unmanned drone operations can be a real possibility in the years to come.

The report also has site suggestions for a UAS Business Park, a similar concept to Grand Sky near Grand Forks. Wenko said that is a long-term idea.