Grand Forks has become “Silicon Valley for Drones” for military and commercial applications

By Mark Mills | Author, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute and
Faculty Fellow, Northwestern University McCormick School of Engineering

What do Marilyn Monroe, President Ronald Reagan and Grand Forks, North Dakota, have in common? For the cognoscenti of historical coincidences and convergences, the answer is drones.

Let’s start with a remarkable World War II era photograph of 18-year-old Norma Jeane Dougherty, aka Marilyn Monroe, in which she is holding a propeller at the company where she worked, appropriately named Radioplane, that built drones in Burbank, California, which were used as targets in training anti-aircraft gunners. That photograph, part of a “Rosie the Riveter” photographic campaign, was instrumental in getting Norma Jeane noticed in Hollywood.

Capt. Ronald Reagan
Marilyn Monroe Drones

The “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda campaign was launched in 1942 to convince women to join the workforce to replace the large numbers of men who were joining the armed services. By 1943, women constituted 65 percent of the aircraft industry’s workforce, compared to 1 percent before the war.

And the coincidence? According to historian Michael Beschloss, the officer responsible for assigning that photographer was Captain Ronald Reagan who, because of poor eyesight, was assigned to the First Motion Picture Unit of the U.S. Army Air Forces in Culver City, California.

To follow the trail further: It was during the Reagan Administration in 1984 that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded a brilliant aviation inventor, Abraham Karem, who built the Amber drone that would, just 10 years later, become the General Atomics Predator drone. And, full circle, Grand Forks Air Force Base has become an all-drone operations airbase and a catalyst for North Dakota to emerge, as the New York Times headlined it, “A Silicon Valley for Drones,” on Christmas Day last year.

We can extend this connection of “coincidenzas” (to borrow a word made famous by 1980s Saturday Night Live comedian Don Novello, who played the fictional “Father” Guido Sarducci). President Reagan’s son, Ronald Prescott Reagan, was born in 1958, the same year that the U.S. military created DARPA, and the same year that the 4133d Strategic Wing at Grand Forks, North Dakota, was established.

Though [drones] had been used … since World War II, they were revolutionized in 1995. The Gnat … carried something new: video cameras. … The Gnat gave commanders a 60-mile panorama [and] could stay airborne more or less permanently. Later renamed the Predator, it quickly became the U.S. military’s preferred surveillance tool.

Mark Bowden
“How the Predator Drone Changed the Nature of War,”
Smithsonian Magazine

Grand Forks & the Drone Economy

Out of Grand Forks today, airmen fly Reaper Predator B and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drones on missions from northern Canada to Texas and South America for the military and for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The Predator in particular has come to epitomize a transformation both in warfare and civilian applications. Military drones are not new. The first one dates back to the dawn of aviation with a Navy program and a successful flight off Long Island in 1916. The program was shelved because the technology wasn’t ready for prime time. It would take 70 years before Abraham Karem would demonstrate, under the DARPA contract noted above, that the technology was finally ripe for the military.

Then it only took 15 years, following the launch of the Predator program, to see the release of the small-appliance-sized Parrot, arguably the first viable consumer drone, which was unveiled at the 2010 annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Parrot, built by French company AR.Drone, was followed quickly by the 2013 introduction of the easy-to-use Phantom, a GPS-enabled drone from DJI, a five-year-old Chinese start-up.

In the handful of years since then, civilian drone demand has grown explosively with about one million sold last year alone in the U.S. (though many of those are still in the toy class). “Drone-mania” and an accompanying “drone-phobia” have now spread across the national landscape. Regulations, litigation, news, entertainment and, perhaps most importantly, new businesses are proliferating, using the drone as a new class of tool and consumer appliance.

Welcome to the drone economy. Its various aspects already comprise an $11-billion industry, including military uses that still account for 80 percent of the market, giving North Dakota some early advantages. The overall market is forecast to increase 10-fold in less than a decade.

The scale and inevitable growth of the drone industry has spurred more than controversy; it has already led to entirely new kinds of jobs and collaterally, the need for new kinds of drone-centric training and education. Given the history of the state, it should be unsurprising that the University of North Dakota (UND) ranks amongst the top 15 drone training colleges in America. The other 14 colleges on the list, by the way, are all located in states that are typically given the “fly-over” label: Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Indiana State Universities, to name a few. This might not be surprising given that some of the most immediately and powerfully useful applications for drones are found in industry, agriculture, utilities of all kinds, and in oil and gas businesses from the wellhead and pipelines to the refineries.

Drone ND

Drones & the Energy Market

In the circles of coincidences, it so happens that among the many drone markets, few are as intriguing and compelling as those in nearly every aspect of the energy industry, from windmills and transmission lines to oil fields. Drones can be used to facilitate operations, maintenance, and exploration and surveys for all manner of energy (and infrastructure) projects. Their greatest immediate benefit may come from productively and radically reducing the costs of compliance with the blizzard of governmental safety and environmental regulations.

Oil and gas companies spend nearly $40 billion a year on compliance. Powerful information-centric Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems have been credited with cutting compliance costs by 10 percent. ERP systems, promoted by companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, also include hundreds of specialty firms that focus on obtaining ever-better data. Drones now open the possibility of profound improvements in real-time information about the myriad of hard-to-see or hard-to-measure aspects of these complex and sprawling energy enterprises. Drones can thus offer another way to produce oil and gas profitably at lower prices—to reduce the benefits to a key metric. The same is true across many industrial and agricultural applications.

In fact, a new Goldman Sachs analysis sees drones as critical to enabling precision agriculture. The demand for drone hardware and services for farming is expected to become the second biggest drone market in the near future, just behind military and security applications.

Drones & Energy Consumption

Drones have another energy feature that has been largely ignored. As with all radically new technologies, eventual ubiquity leads to more energy consumption.

How so? Everything uses energy and the law of big numbers applies. If you do lots of anything, you will consume lots of energy. In this case, a salient fact is that all flying machines consume more energy per pound than any other mode of transportation. Flying is usually far more convenient and a faster way to get information or move things. But in the physics of engineered systems, convenience and speed come with an energy cost.

Grand Sky, the nation's first drone business park

Architect’s rendering of Grand Sky, the nation’s first drone business and aviation park. Access to the runways at Grand Forks Air Force Base will accelerate the introduction of large commercial drones into national airspace. Grand Sky offers 1.2 million sq. ft. of hanger, office, shop, laboratory and data center space on a build-to-suit basis. (Courtesy Grand Sky Development Co.)

The energy implications of drones are revealed by looking at how they’ll be used. For now, we can ignore drones that someday might transport humans since that entails a substantially more difficult technological and critically, regulatory hurdle. In the meantime, drones are already technically and commercially viable for two generic civilian tasks: first, carrying stuff (whether Amazon packages or precision fertilizer) or collecting information (whether geophysical exploration or crop health surveys). The second category encompasses purely entertainment uses, which are also information-centric—from follow-me-skiing or wedding videos to drone racing (via virtual reality headsets), to note a few examples in a rapidly expanding consumer cornucopia.

Let’s consider first the use of drones for carrying stuff. Here, battery-powered drones are generally not useful since they are typically limited to small payloads (a pound or two), short flight times (minutes, not hours) and low speeds (well below 30 mph). These present severe limitations for myriads of commercial and industrial applications.

Drones carrying real payloads for long periods or at useful speeds incur high energy costs. It’s in the physics—everywhere and always, whether shuttling goods or dusting crops. The Predator drone, for example, typifies what nature dictates: It is powered by a 100-horsepower, four-cylinder engine of a type typically used in snowmobiles.

Fuel-burning engines will dominate heavy lifting for drones because oil stores 40 times more energy per pound than batteries. Fuel cells come close to matching the energy density of engines, while operating as quietly as batteries. Even though fuel cells are expensive, they will become a go-to power source for the dual goals of heavy-lift and quiet operation. But there is still no ‘free lunch’ on the energy front. While the universe is dominated by hydrogen, the Earth is not. We obtain 95 percent of the hydrogen used today (for industrial processes and rockets) from natural gas. So one way or another, heavy-lift and long-range drones will be shale-powered.

Some drones will be gasoline hybrids, similar to cars. One German inventor has already designed a hybrid gasoline-burning consumer drone that can carry 12 pounds of cargo and fly for an hour at 60 mph.

A comparable battery-powered unit would carry one pound of cargo and fly for only 15 minutes. Many similar types of drones will follow that path soon, unleashing a flood of industrial and agricultural uses.

It’s difficult to guestimate the energy that will be consumed by high-powered drones used for novel tasks still not imagined and heretofore impossible in agriculture, industry or commerce. But we can explore a proxy by looking at the widely hyped possibility of package deliveries—the convenience and flexibility of local drone delivery for the megatons of stuff now shipped daily throughout the nation.

One way to get a handle on it is to examine two critical facts: How much stuff is carried in America by trucks (ignoring rail, air and ships), and how much more energy it takes to fly a machine (of any kind) carrying a pound of stuff. For purposes of this ballpark calculation, we will assume that the energy efficiency of drones matches larger conventional aircraft in terms of gallons burned per pound of lift. This is a generous assumption since, again according to the laws of physics, smaller prop blades and quadcopter designs are inherently less efficient.

In fact, the power associated with a quadcopter drone’s computer-controlled stability cuts in half the payload it can carry. Of course, turn the stability control off and the drone crashes. All that said, for the sake of a simple estimate, we will assume the tech geniuses in California’s Silicon Valley and North Dakota’s Silicon Drone Fields will invent clever technology to match conventional aviation efficiency. (It is no coincidence that start-up Packet Digital of Fargo, North Dakota, is one such tech company specializing in drone power management.)

For drones, as for all aircraft, the bottom line is that flying cargo consumes 10-fold more energy per pound-mile than carrying it by truck. This fact is locked into the existence of gravity and the atmosphere. Now we get to the simple arithmetic. Imagine drones carrying 10 percent of the three trillion ton-miles of truck freight in U.S., which would happen if drones were used to facilitate freighting’s first and last mile. Since 10-fold more energy is used per airborne ton-mile, 10 percent of cargo going by air will use as much total energy as the 90 percent still carried on trucks.

In other words, 10 percent of freight traffic delivered by drones would double the fuel used by U.S. freight trucking, adding 2.5 million barrels per day of oil demand. If the drones all used hydrogen-powered fuel cells, that would require more than the equivalent of 3 million barrels per day in new natural gas demand, which equals a 50-percent increase in total shale output. (It takes energy to make hydrogen, hence the penalty.)

The arithmetic is inexorable: Even a 5-percent market penetration of drones carrying freight drives a 50-percent increase in oil for freight shipping. Just a 1-percent penetration pushes freight oil use up at least 10 percent.

However, long before drones carry significant freight in the first and last mile of delivery, they will carry the weight equivalent of at least 1 percent of freight for other industrial and agriculture applications, which will require an additional 250,000 to 300,000 barrels of oil per day—or, to provide relevant context, over one-fourth of the Bakken’s current output.

Battery Powered Drones

Meanwhile, well before drones start carrying freight or its equivalent in tonnage, there are plenty of other uses for the millions of low-power, battery-propelled drones. Using drones to gather and transmit data and images is light work in energy terms, and battery power is up to many tasks. In energy terms, even 50 million civilian drones of the Parrot or Phantom class wouldn’t consume as much electricity as roughly that of many laptop PCs (which have comparably sized lithium batteries). Here, the big-picture energy implications from ubiquitous use is not in the specific appetite of a drone’s propulsion system, but in the tsunami of data that drone information systems will add to the Internet.

In general, the energy demand implications from drones are analogous to the history of computing itself. Mainframe computers, although powerful, were economically hobbled by their cost, scale and inefficiency. The post-1980s rise of ubiquitous computing is now familiar history; collapsing microprocessor prices and soaring functionality led to computers everywhere, not just in every business of every size, but on every student desktop and in every consumer pocket and purse.

The singular achievement of computer engineers has been to radically increase the distribution of computing power. But the combination of so much more computing in use, along with so many new and imaginative uses for computing, has resulted in an astonishing increase in energy used: Globally, computing today uses more energy than commercial aviation, which accounts for about 12 percent of transportation energy consumed worldwide. That was an outcome few anticipated.

Since 10-fold more energy is used per airborne ton-mile, 10 percent of cargo going by air (drones) will use as much total energy as the 90 percent still carried on trucks.

Drones, in short, will stimulate, create and drive another global wave of data into the multi-trillion-dollar, gigawatt-hour-consuming Internet infrastructure.

Data Tsunami

Which brings us to the data deluge drones will create. Imagine, for example, only 5 percent of households uploading 10 minutes of drone video once a week to the Cloud. That much additional data traffic is equal to the current total mobile Internet traffic.

Odds are, though, that the drone data flood will come sooner from industrial and commercial applications that use both conventional video and (increasingly) data-intensive, multi-spectral imagers. In America, 60 percent of the kilowatt-hours energizing the Internet’s labyrinth of machinery, which transports and processes data, come from coal and natural gas.

To this thought experiment we can also add the global energy implications from high-altitude drones that Google and Facebook hope to use to link at least a billion more people to the Internet. (Those drones can be solar powered because there are no clouds in the stratosphere and the payload comprises radios and bytes, not cargo or people.) More people on the Internet means more data by definition, which a priori means more electricity consumed to keep the Web lit. Even green-heavy forecasts assume that about 60 percent of new global electricity supply will come from coal and natural gas. It is relevant as well to note that in emerging markets, a significant share of land-based mobile networks are powered by oil-fired generators.

Drones, in short, will stimulate, create and drive another global wave of data into the multi-trillion-dollar, gigawatt-hour-consuming Internet infrastructure.

North Dakota Bound

The jury is out as to whether the dominant supplier of consumer drones will be found in the U.S. or China, or even in France or Germany. But for the heavy lifting, the odds might tilt towards America. For an idea of what a future heavy-lift drone might look like, check out DARPA’s new design that uses an array of 24 electric fans, powered by a fuel-burning 3 megawatt-hour turbine. For a glimpse at who will design, maintain and operate such drones, we don’t have to look much further than the Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where over $30 million has already been invested to create a national test site for drones.

While North Dakota and Silicon Valley are both on the leading edge of the drone revolution, it is a transformation that impacts every state. The energy implications are intriguing but predictable. We find uncharted territory, however, with the economic, social and security implications. Regarding these issues, one should note that Mark Hagerott, PhD, the Chancellor of North Dakota’s University System and Cyber Fellow at the New America Foundation, is arguably one of the nation’s most forward-thinking analysts. Hagerott credibly proposes that the constellation of technologies, which drones epitomize, represent one of history’s great transformations.

The circle of coincidences is thus fully closed. Energy and information are inextricably linked. North Dakota is a major player in the emerging drone sector and also in the shale technologies that have transformed global markets.

Perhaps a former Radioplane assembly worker named Marilyn and Captain Ronald Reagan are smiling somewhere—from celestial, grace-powered drones, of course. †

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