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Autonomous Nation: An Exclusive Inside-Look at the Upcoming Event

Autonomous Nation (formerly known as Drone Focus) is a full-day conference bringing together policymakers from the local, state and national levels with industry entrepreneurs and innovators in an attempt to help make our region the most autonomous-friendly area in the country. The conference will focus on the autonomous industry and the impact it can have across our region, solving issues such as workforce shortages, inefficiencies and technology gaps.

We sat down with some of the names speaking at this year’s conference including U.S. Senator John Hoeven, NDDOT CEO Bill Panos and Jeff DeCoux of Autonomy Institute to provide an exclusive inside look at what they’ll be sharing at the conference and why you should be excited for what is on going right now in the world of autonomy.

To Register:

Mark Your Calendars

August 25
Microsoft’s Fargo Campus

Schedule Breakdown:

8AM-1PM Autonomous Nation Conference Microsoft Fargo Campos
1PM-2PM Transit From Microsoft Fargo Campus To Grand Farm Hub Site
2PM-4PM Autonomous Demonstrations Grand Farm Hub Site – Horace, ND

What To Expect

Access to Policymakers

One of North Dakota’s competitive advantages is our access to policymakers. Emerging Prairie will be inviting local and state lawmakers and are looking at bringing in federal lawmakers as well.

Relevant Content

Throughout the event, you will find that the content is woven together in a narrative focused on building the infrastructure, policies, software, hardware and tools for the autonomous nation of the future.

Real-time Demonstrations

Emerging Prairie will work with the industry to bring some of the latest autonomous equipment to demonstrate during the event


  • Policymakers at the local, state and national levels
  • Economic developers
  • Industry interested in reaching policymakers

Meet The Speakers

Dr. Mark Askelson
Executive Director, Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS)
Gray Byers
Business Development, Airtonomy
Dr. Paulo Flores
Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, North Dakota State University
Josh Ried
Founder and CEO, Airtonomy


If you are interested in getting involved, email or call Andrew Jason: [email protected], 218.556.2922

Bill Panos
Director, North Dakota Department of Transportation
Sen. John Hoeven
United States Senator North Dakota
Gene Avakyan
CEO and Co-founder, Edison Aerospace
William Cromarty
Director of Business Development, Airial Robotics
Ginny Crowson
Director, Connected and Automated Vehicles Minnesota Department of Transportation
Jeff Decoux
Chairman, Autonomy Institute
Sarah Lovas
Grower, North Dakota
Vanessa Kummer
Grower, North Dakota
Zach Peterson
Director of Business Development, Vigilant Aerospace Systems
Matt Sather
General Manager, Botlink
Dr. Xin (Rex) Sun
Assistant Professor, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems
Engineering, North Dakota State University
Trevor Woods
Executive Director, Northern Plains UAS Test Site

Meet The Speaker

Q&A with Senator John Hoeven

When did this journey of autonomy first begin for you?

Back in 2005, when I was governor, we started this whole effort into unmanned aviation technology, drones or UAS, unmanned aerial systems. We started a program that I called “centers of excellence,” wherein we provided funding and formed partnerships with businesses and with universities.

One of these was the center of excellence for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) at Grand Forks, which was the first of its kind in the nation. We really led the foray into unmanned technology for aviation which was a very nascent industry at that time.

When I came to the U.S. Senate in 2011, I actually sponsored legislation, which we passed, setting up six test sites across the country and the very first test site was the Northern Plains test site in Grand Forks at UND. That built on all of the work that we had done with our Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aerial Systems. And this has turned into partnering with leading aerospace companies.

And now, Grand Sky is not just unmanned aviation—now we’re in the space mission, with the low-earth orbit satellite communication mission. And we’re also in hypersonics, with Sky Range and the Range Hawk mission. It’s all intertwined between not only the military but also top aerospace companies and the University of North Dakota.

We’ve been at that now for 17 years; this is not an overnight success.

We’re bringing that same approach to Grand Farm and Autonomous Nation. Regardless of the technology surrounding autonomous farming, people will always be involved in the equation. What Grand Farm really captures is the idea of leading the world in precision agriculture and driving into the future in the same way we’re leading the world in unmanned aviation.

Autonomous Nation is about bringing people together—not only in getting ideas from them on the future of precision agriculture—but also using it to create partners. This year, we’ll be talking about the incredible progress that we’ve made with Grand Farm.

The whole concept is to show how North Dakota will continue to be a leader and become even more of a leader in precision agriculture.

Ultimately, I think what you’re going to see is agriculture in space married with the things that we are doing at Grand Sky and Grand Farm.

We now have the ability to do space travel. I toured the SpaceX hangar in Cape Canaveral, FL, and they had 10 Falcon Nine rockets in that hangar—every single one of them had been out to space and back 10 times—that’s 100 trips where those rockets took off from Cape Canaveral, did a mission in space, came back and landed!

Our ability for space travel is here—our limitation is how do you sustain men and women out there for the length of time it takes to get to their destination and back? How do you sustain them in terms of food and water?

Between Grand Sky Tech Park, NDSU and UND and their space programs, North Dakota is in a position of leadership. Quite literally, we don’t even know where this is all going to go—but it’s very exciting. In terms of ag in space, nobody’s better positioned to just grab this thing and run with it. Literally, the sky’s the limit.

The “Future” Farmers

When you look at young people and where they’re looking to go to school, I think because of these things we’re developing in tandem with NDSU and UND, they’re gonna go, “Hey, I want to go to North Dakota because I want to be where some of this exciting stuff is developing.”

So it’s not just the education—it’s them being involved in the technology, the jobs, the economy and the opportunities of the future.

Our ability for space travel is here”

How can farmers support this ongoing mission in autonomy? What are some of those practical applications?

The reality is that they’re already a part of it and they’re just going to continue to be a bigger part of it because they are using precision agriculture. It involves every aspect of their operation; whether it’s the technology of the equipment they use, their applications or fertilizers, developing the qualities of their herd if they’re a cattle rancher, the GPS systems they use, their access to the supply chain or whether it’s something as simple bringing young people into this enterprise.

What are you doing personally in continuing to make North Dakota a leader in autonomy, and how can farmers support your efforts?

North Dakota is an ag powerhouse; nobody does farming and ranching better than ours. But we’re not just an ag powerhouse, we’re an energy powerhouse, and that’s something that I’ve worked on since my time as governor starting the Empower North Dakota Energy Policy in 2000.

Obviously, North Dakota is huge in oil, gas and coal, but we’re also leading the way forward with carbon capture and those kinds of technologies.

Red Trail Ethanol Plant in Richardton, ND, for example, is the first state-permitted biofuels plant in the nation that captures the co2 that they produce when they convert corn to transportation fuel.

They’re selling low-carbon fuel to the west coast and getting a premium for it. So our farmers here in North Dakota deliver their corn to the plant and in Richardton instead of having to pay a big amount of money to send it off to the coasts or overseas. So they eliminate the basis, which means they get a better price for their corn and they run the plant.

If you’re out there as a farmer, that’s how you control your destiny, making a lot better return than just growing your crop and selling it the traditional way. That’s just one example of how we’re marrying up ag and energy in a way that really is ahead of the rest of the country.

What is holding other states back?

In the ag world, North Dakota is blessed with great farmland and ranch land—you need that. In terms of energy, we have the resources of coal, oil, gas, some hydro and we also have biofuels because we have the ag base.

We have worked very hard over the last 20- plus years to create that environment where you get the investment, you encourage the innovation and you help it along.

That means working with our farmers and our energy industry to develop these concepts and marry them together, creating these synergies that we’re talking about. When it comes to ag and energy, that’s our thing. And I don’t think anybody does it better than we do.

What can farmers and business owners do to support this mission?

Participate, and also, continue what you’re doing with Future Farmer Magazine. It’s the same thing we’re trying to do with Autonomous Nation and Grand Farm—and that’s bringing all of these things together.

Putting the information out about what we’re trying to do brings farmers and ranchers into the equation. And the more of them that we can marry up with these concepts with Grand Farm, with NDSU and with this link we’re trying to create with UND, we can get them excited, get them involved and try to show them why there’s a real tangible benefit there for them.

What policies are you currently focused on that will help drive autonomous farming into the next stage?

My team works on good farm policy 365 days a year, every single day. That’s our first priority because North Dakota is an ag powerhouse. Many people live in the cities and don’t come from the farm anymore like they did many years ago. But something very important to remember is that good farm policy benefits every single American every single day, because Americans have the highest quality, lowest cost food supply in the world, and precision ag is an important part of that future.

An essential part of growing the UAS industry over the last several years has come from developing relationships with the aviation industry. What are you and the state of North Dakota doing to build those relationships?

I’ve worked since my time as governor to build North Dakota into a leader in unmanned aviation, starting with the UAS Center of Excellence we created at the University of North Dakota. Following that, we worked to establish Grand Sky, a first-of-its-kind UAS business and technology park and secured Northrop Grumman and General Atomics as its anchor tenants. At the same time, we authored and secured passage of legislation to create the UAS test site program, which has provided North Dakota with unique capabilities to support the testing and development of UAS technology. I continue working to build upon these efforts, attracting more investment and growth in our state’s unmanned aviation industry.

“Good farm policy benefits every single American every single day”

Q&A with NDDOT CEO Bill Panos

Why you are going to be speaking at Autonomous Nation?

I’ll be speaking at Autonomous Nation on how the NDDOT is leading several intelligent transportation initiatives.

For those that cannot attend, could you share the message you’ll be sharing at Autonomous Nation? What are the main takeaways you want attendees to remember?

We’ll summarize our program and describe a few projects currently underway. The main takeaways are:

  • Autonomous technologies are being transferred from various industries to the transportation space. This process is not new, but the benefits are unique
  • Autonomous technologies are a result of fully deployed “connecting” technologies, integrated information management systems and collaboration
  • That we need the engagement of the state legislature and private companies (agriculture, energy, etc.) to make this work in North Dakota

What are some things going on behind the scenes that you can share that growers and the future autonomous industry can be excited about?

The advancement of computing power, sensor technologies, algorithms and the rise of connecting technologies will advance these initiatives forward.

What are three reasons why now is the right time to pursue autonomy in North Dakota, and why NDDOT is helping lead the way?

  1. There is an unprecedented increase in fatalities on our nation’s highways
  2. The development and application of autonomous technology is at a tipping point
  3. The funding to continue to build and rebuild infrastructure is unsustainable

What are a few key things NDDOT is doing right now to help policymakers in North Dakota in driving the state to full autonomy?

  • Funding projects and collaborating with other state agencies, universities and non-profit organizations to demonstrate the value of autonomous systems.
  • Increasing support of university research and applied technology development.
  • Creating a transportation technology (autonomy) corridor along I-29 from Grand Forks to Fargo.
  • Working with private companies to use autonomous technology for freight movement.

NDDOT demonstrated its first autonomous impact protection vehicle in 2020. What has that led to today and what else is NDDOT focused on to reduce fatalities in work zones?

We are still evaluating the operational integrity and design of autonomous attenuators. The future of autonomous systems needs to be deployed in a normalized manner within the transportation operating space.

  • The NDDOT is evaluating the expansion of automated attenuator use for worker protection.
  • The NDDOT is evaluating the development and deployment of autonomous mowing systems to meet that operational need.
  • The NDDOT, along with the federal DOT, is planning the deployment of a transportation management system.

What are four things that the autonomy industry is lacking that NDDOT is helping provide and why are they important?

  1. A process of field deployment within DOTs
  2. Real-world data on system performance, conditional resiliency, and use-costs
  3. State and federal guidance on deployment rules and regulations, including insurance industry normalization toward autonomous systems
  4. Common terms and understanding of autonomous system development and deployment

Q&A with Autonomy Institute Chairman Jeff Decoux

What is Autonomy Institute and why will you be presenting at Autonomous Nation?

The Autonomy Institute is a nonprofit organization accelerating the “Path to Commerce” for intelligent infrastructure and autonomous systems. This includes Digital Infrastructure, Autonomy and AI at the edge. It is a government, industry, academia and public alliance to create the policies, markets, jobs and community benefits of autonomy, starting with the Intelligent and Autonomous Infrastructure that is the equivalent of the Eisenhower Interstate Highways. There is a tsunami of technology coming to cities and it needs leadership to assure it meets community needs. That’s where Public-Private Partnership (P3) comes in to deploy Public Infrastructure Network Nodes (PINN). The PINN will be as critical to a city as roads, power, telecommunications and water infrastructure.

Big transformational programs are driven by new infrastructure:

  • Freight Trains – required railways, telegraph and depots.
  • Aviation—required control towers, communications, radars, GPS and antennas.
  • Interstate Commerce—required roads, highways, bridges and interchanges.
  • Internet—required network access points, data centers and fiber.
  • Industry 4.0—requires Intelligent Infrastructure, data exchanges and digital twins.

We look to support regions and states that are leading with the adoption of Industry 4.0 solutions like autonomy. North Dakota has shown pioneering leadership for automated and autonomous systems. The Governor, senators, state leadership not only supported legislation, but backed it up with funding.

For those that cannot attend, could you share the message you’ll be sharing at Autonomous Nation?

I would use the Autonomous Nation quote: “Autonomy is no longer a dream, but a reality.” Autonomous Nation Conference’s mission is to be a catalyst and converge, government employees, industry leaders, and entrepreneurs to set North Dakota as the most cutting-edge, autonomous-friendly region in the world.

What are some things going on behind the scenes that you can share that growers and the future autonomous industry can be excited about?

Automation and Autonomy are about freeing us from dull, dirty, dangerous jobs. It is vital that our nation increases our productivity and exports. It is also critical to do this by empowering the individual and family unit which is a key foundation for the agriculture industry in North Dakota. In the past, we had to consolidate and build commercial operations to increase production. Now we can take automated and autonomous systems out of the factories and integrate them into society at the same time of increasing production output.

“Automation and Autonomy are about freeing us from dull, dirty, dangerous jobs.”

Why is now is the right time to pursue autonomy in North Dakota?

This is a national challenge. It took Edison seven years to convince the nation of the value of electricity, and Eisenhower five years the value of Interstate Highways. Intelligent infrastructure will be the foundation of the 21st century and will be the brains of our economy. Leadership from the Federal agencies will accelerate our efforts to make it a national program, yet private infrastructure dollars will underwrite using Public-Private Partnerships.

Advance Legislation And Public Policy For Industry 4.0

Ensuring United States Leadership in 21st-Century Innovation & Community Impact

  • Intelligent Infrastructure
  • Autonomous Corridors
  • Active Digital Twins
  • Municipal Data Exchanges
  • Mobility Infrastructure
  • Transportation Standards
  • All-Up Autonomy Program
  • National APNTY System
  • Digital Edge Easements
  • Federal PINN P3 Loans
  • Avigation Easements
  • Federal Infrastructure Loans
  • Intelligent Infrastructure Act
  • NextGen Electric Highways
  • National ASOCC Program
  • M2M Spectrum Allocation
  • National M2M Network
  • National Broadband

Autonomy Institute

What are four things that the autonomy industry is lacking that you are helping provide and why are they important?

Top Priorities:

  1. Leadership: It is a Whole of Nation Program and we need to set a NORTHSTAR!
  2. Capital: Establish “Public<>Private” Partnerships to leverage private capital
  3. Infrastructure: Intelligent infrastructure is the foundation for Industry 4.0—autonomy.
  4. ARPA-X: regional research and development with 24/7/365 operations.

Our nation has no Northstar or alignment of any kind. We have to focus on our nation’s infrastructure first in a rapid and expansive way. We cannot defend democracy if we cannot even take care of our own country. Our national productivity is dependent on our ability to deploy automated and autonomous systems outside the factory; we have no chance to compete on manpower alone.

China is looking to incorporate smart roads into the China Belt and Road Initiative from 2013. This was launched “AFTER” China dominated the infrastructure buildout for decades in their own country. Now they have the systems, technology, talent and funds to take over the world.

For those not familiar with the NATIONAL INTELLIGENT INFRASTRUCTURE COMMERCE ACT 2023, what are the key takeaways from it and why is it important for policymakers and growers in North Dakota?

The INTELLIGENT INFRASTRUCTURE ACT addresses the key challenges of our lifetime. Providing advanced city services, resilient and carbon free economies, closing the technology divide, enabling autonomous systems, and most important; securing data for people, cities, and governments.

National sovereignty and global productivity will go to the nation that deploys the INTELLIGENT INFRASTRUCTURE enabling Industry 4.0.

INTELLIGENT INFRASTRUCTURE is the equivalent of the interstate highways of the 1960s (adding GPS and Internet) and will be the brains of our economy.

INTELLIGENT INFRASTRUCTURE will advance vision zero, eliminate the digital divide, stimulate economic expansion, support national security and create millions of jobs.

What role does North Dakota play in “Industry 4.0”?

Past national efforts impacted specific regions more than others. i.e. Atomic Race—New York, New Mexico, Tennessee. Space—Florida, Texas. Autonomy will impact the entire nation but just like the Interstate Highways it will depend on the early leadership of the states, i.e. Route 66.

History of Autonomous Development

Since Frank W. Andrew first developed his personal “self-driving” tractor in 1940, autonomy in agriculture has been an exciting possibility at the forefront of growers’ and engineers’ minds. Several tried and failed attempts have been made over the decades, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s when John Deere partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that autonomous farming truly became a possibility. NASA’s JPL created the first global tracking system for GPS satellites to create real-time data tracking for farming.

Meanwhile, John Deere was also working on another self-guidance GPS tracking system called NavCom. By 2003, NavCom’s tracking precision was down to within a single inch. However, one major downfall was an unreliable signal. John Deere set out to fix this by utilizing NASA’s global network to strengthen its StarFire GPS systems.

Fast forward to the 2015, and the race to autonomy took to the sky with Grand Sky—a partnership between the United States Air Force Base of Grand Forks and Grand Sky Development. Grand Sky became the nation’s first commercial UAS business and aviation park for research, testing and development. Today, nearly all UAS companies are based in North Dakota, including Northrop Grumman, General Atomics and Collins Aerospace. This reignited the flame for autonomous agriculture on the ground, bringing Grand Farm, which supports the race to full autonomy by connecting industry leaders, policymakers and growers through events like Autonomous Nation.

John Deere hasn’t been quiet either—they’ve been building the Megatron of autonomous machinery, introducing the fully-autonomous 8R at CES earlier in 2022.

The machine combines Deere’s 8R tractor, TruSet-enabled chisel plow, GPS guidance system, and new advanced technologies.

Some of the other features include:

  • Six pairs of stereo cameras
  • 360-degree obstacle detection and the calculation of distance
  • Deep neural network lightning-fast image processing for controls and obstacle detection
  • Continual geofencing accuracy within an inch

History of Autonomous Nation

Autonomous Nation was born out of a conference called Drone Focus, which was first launched in 2015 in collaboration with Senator John Hoeven and the Northern Plains Test Site as well as some of other key partners in the UAS space in North Dakota.

There’s a long-standing history on why North Dakota has become a leader when it comes to aerial autonomy. Drone Focus proved to be a huge success, bringing in organizations like the FCC, FAA, USDOT and more, all thanks to Senator Hoeven’s involvement in leading the chase.

Since then, we’ve proven that North Dakota is a leader in UAS space.

What’s Next for Autonomous Nation?

So what’s the next evolution of that? It’s all-around autonomy. The conference is meant to connect the autonomous industry with policymakers to make our region the most autonomous-friendly in the country. It’s simple: what we’ve done in the air, we can also bring down onto the ground. This is where Grand Farm comes in. Agriculture has been a leader when it comes to autonomy for decades and it’s only continuing to progress.

The next driving factor for autonomy in the future is the supply chain side things. So much of agriculture is just about getting food from one spot to another. Additionally, it’s no secret that there’s a major labor shortage when it comes to the ag world, especially with trucking and shipping. Autonomy brings solutions to this issue amongst a host of many other topics.

Lastly, this isn’t just a North Dakota story; this is nationwide story. Senator Hoeven and the state of North Dakota has done a great job in leading the charge when it comes to UAS space and autonomy. However, this can’t be a statewide play—it has to be a regional play.

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