The Business End Of UAS

Running a UAS business requires more than knowing the technology and regulations. The University of North Dakota is teaching students how to develop business plans and project revenue streams.
By Patrick C. Miller | September 29, 2016

When it comes to university rivalries, the one between the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks and North Dakota State University in Fargo is as intense as any. But one area in which the two competitors appear to have a good working relationship is in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Otherwise, how do you explain John Nowatzki, an agricultural machine specialist with NDSU’s Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department, addressing a business class of UND students in Grand Forks on the topic of UAS precision agriculture? The course—titled “Unmanned Aircraft System in Business”—is taught by SkySkopes CEO and UND graduate Matt Dunlevy and Rick Thomas, a program manager with Northrop Grumman Corp.

It’s the first time such a course has been taught at UND and it’s likely one of the few courses on the business end of UAS offered anywhere in the country. Margaret Williams, dean of UND’s College of Business and Public Administration, admits that she doesn’t know a great deal about UAS technology, but she does know that it’s one of the university’s major areas of emphasis.

After all, UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences was the first to offer a degree in UAS. Some have gone so far as to dub North Dakota the “Silicon Valley” of the UAS industry.

So when Dunlevy brought Williams his idea for a course that taught UAS business basics to students primarily interested in aerospace, engineering and business, it wasn’t a hard sell.

“Matt, who really is a true entrepreneur and who had already been doing some teaching for the college, came to me and asked what I thought of the idea,” Williams recalled.

“We have the drones. We have the computer systems that can collect massive amounts of data,” she noted. “The people flying these drones and that have these systems are asking: ‘How can we make money off this?’ We’re the ones who can help answer that question in the business school.”

Between the FAA implementing the small UAS rule for commercial operations in August and the agency allowing students to fly UAS under the supervision of an instructor, Dunlevy convinced Williams that the time was right for the UND business school to offer the course he proposed. It then became a matter of providing the course when it was most needed.   

“Universities are not necessarily known for being fast moving,” Williams said. “We have a curriculum approval process, but we also have an option for special topics courses. If an idea like this comes up, we can be open to innovation and offer a course for three years as a special topic while it goes through the approval process.”

Since last month, 24 UND students have been enrolled in the course that will lead them toward researching and developing a business plan based on their professional and personal interests.

“It’s like a microcosm of the whole business curriculum within one class,” Williams remarked, noting that students learn about the regulatory environment, UAS technology, the financial aspects and how to project revenue streams for a startup business.

“It’s important for the business students in the class to understand the regulatory and technology side,” she continued. “The students who are in engineering and aerospace, they’ll understand the technology, but they don’t necessarily understand the business side of things.”

William pointed out that the class offers a unique multidisciplinary opportunity for students to learn from each other.

“That’s the rich kind of learning environment that we really love providing to students,” she said.

Williams expects UND to benefit from focusing on themes such as UAS that help the university become more widely known across the nation and around the globe. And learning a thing or two from your closest rival probably isn’t a bad thing, either.