FARGO-Mark Nisbet remembers firsthand how swift the current of the Souris River was moving during the 2011 flood in Minot. The spokesman for Xcel Energy was on the river in an aluminum boat assessing the damage done to power lines.
"We kept electricity on in Minot during that flood," Nisbet said. "It wasn't an easy task, and drones would have made it a lot simpler."
And safer, he added later. Nisbet was one of three panelists who spoke at Drone Focus, a meetup event held Wednesday at the Prairie Den.
Industry leaders gather once a month to discuss topics such as potential drone uses and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
In addition to natural disaster response, Nisbet said drones could be used to look for issues such as hot spots on power lines or cracks in wind turbine blades.
Jeff Volk, president and CEO of Moore Engineering, spoke about potential uses in the engineering industry.
He said drones can be used to easily collect aerial images and topographic data. Besides collecting large amounts of data in a short amount of time, drones can also survey rugged terrain not easily accessible using traditional survey methods, he said.
Volk and Nisbet both told the room filled with drone startup entrepreneurs that they are trying to decide whether to invest in their own drones or partner with an outside company.
Volk said one concern about a partnership is not having total control. He wants to be sure that if they need a drone on a given day, one will be available.
"It's got to be there when we need it, otherwise it's a toy on the shelf," Volk said.
They also need to know their drone partner is well-established. He said if they change how they do business, they need to know their partner has longevity.
Nisbet said more research also needs to be done on how to get data from the drone back to the company and integrated within its operating systems.
Other concerns included being able to fly over metropolitan areas and the public's perception of drones.
Scott Schumacher, a representative with RDO Integrated Controls, spoke from a different perspective.The division of RDO Equipment based in Billings, Mont., is a dealer of SenseFLY drones.
His team helps companies find uses for drones. As an example, he talked about working with the Minnesota Department of Transportation on a bridge safety project.
He said RDO Integrated Controls has sold 100 drones nationwide to date.
Many believe North Dakota is poised to become the Silicon Valley of drones.
The state has already invested more than $34 million to establish the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site near Grand Forks where companies can test their drone technology. The University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University have both established courses in drone technology. Fargo and Grand Forks are also both home to successful drone startups such as Botlink and Sky Skopes.
Events such as Drone Focus are meant to gather these entrepreneurs, government officials and potential users to discuss how they can help one another.
The drone conversation continues today at a UAS Industry Day event planned at the Hilton Garden Inn in Fargo. Gov. Jack Dalrymple will join industry leaders and stakeholders to discuss new UAV opportunities for the state.
IF YOU GO
What: UAS Industry Day
When: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. today
Where: Hilton Garden Inn, 4351 17th Ave. S., Fargo