“If you’re concerned about it, maybe there’s a reason we should be flying over you, right?”

So says a top executive of a U.S. drone company.

Here’s what’s a surprise, at least to me: This isn’t even hot “new news.” Heck, in 2009, the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks became the first four-year college to offer a degree in “unmanned aircraft piloting” that’s open only to U.S. citizens. A degree. And the university has a “fleet of seven different types of unmanned aircraft.”

That’s all from a fascinating read, “Spies in the sky signal new age of surveillance,” at the StarTribune.com. The subtitle? “A North Dakota criminal case highlights growing fears over police use of drones.” And here’s the first paragraph describing the criminal case set in North Dakota:

Amid 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and miles from the closest town, a Predator drone led to the arrests of farmer Rodney Brossart and five members of his family last year after a dispute over a neighbor’s six lost cows on his property escalated into a 16-hour standoff with police. …

Well, I can’t quote the entire article, a shame since it is well-written — readable and chock full of fascinating stories.

But wait. I just have to tell you how I ran across this story. It was linked in a Tweet, which read:

Jillian C. York ‏@jilliancyork
Head of drone company: “If you’re concerned, maybe there’s a reason we should be flying over you” http://t.co/5dfIDbk6
Retweeted by David Waldman

That Tweet was meant to elicit some fear. And I’m guilty of using that “hot quote” in my lead. But, as I read the entire article, I found that, as is usually the case, there’s a lot more to the use of drones than just shuddering about 1984 come true.

Here is a graphic example — i.e., “graphic” as in an image and caption that say a lot:

Brian Armstrong was told by the FAA to stop using this drone to gather geological information in Otter Tail County where he is the head of the geographical information department. He uses the drone to CHECK FOR BEAVER DAMS. – From the StarTribune.com (click image to read article)

Beaver dams! Who’d a thunk it. By the way, that’s from another startribune.com article, “Otter Tail County wants drone to survey, not to spy.”

What a name. Otter Tail County. It’s so Americana. Like the Horse Heaven Hills in eastern Washington state.

Back to the major Star-Tribune story, which features a video. Here are a few highlights:

The Grand Forks [Air Force] base has been flying drones since 2005, when it switched missions from flying tankers to unmanned aerial systems. So, too, have the storied Happy Hooligans of the North Dakota Air National Guard, which has flown drone missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. …

… Predators operated by Customs and Border Patrol [mapped] the flooded Red River Valley areas of North Dakota and Minnesota [and provided] disaster relief support . …

The Grand Forks base [with] two Predators flying, expects … 15 Northrop Grumman Global Hawks and six to eight General Atomics Predators/Reapers [and] an additional 907 Air Force personnel. …

For this wide swath of eastern North Dakota, that is part of the appeal: jobs. The University of North Dakota has eagerly partnered with the military and defense contractors, and often operating behind locked doors and secrecy, university officials are working to make the area a hub of unmanned aircraft activity. The state has invested an estimated $12.5 million. … The local Economic Development Corporation has added a drone coordinator in charge of recruiting more companies. …

Where aviation was in 1925, that’s where we are today with unmanned aerial vehicles,” said Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training. “The possibilities are endless.”


The University of North Dakota operates a fleet of seven [types]. In 2009, it became the first college in the country to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft piloting. It now has 23 graduates and 84 students majoring in the program, … open only to U.S. citizens.


The university also serves as an incubator for companies. … In five days, Unmanned Applications Institute International, which provides training … can teach a cop how to use a drone the size of a bathtub toy.

“If you’re concerned about it, maybe there’s a reason we should be flying over you, right?” said Douglas McDonald, the company’s director of special operations and president of a local chapter of the unmanned vehicle trade group. “But as soon as you lose your kid, get your car stolen or have marijuana growing out at your lake place that’s not yours, you’d probably want one of those flying overhead.”

Earlier this year, the Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department was provided its own drone by the university. …


[Not] everyone is enthusiastic. … Of the 43 public comments on [an Air Force] proposal, 42 opposed it, largely out of safety concerns and fears that it would interfere with commercial and general aviation. Nevertheless, the FAA approved. …

All: “Spies in the sky signal new age of surveillance.”

Know what? North Dakota has some amazingly enterprising people. It makes me proud in a way because my mother grew up in North Dakota. Her mother, parents and several siblings all came to the United States from Switzerland around 1905 to 1910. How they ended up in North Dakota, I don’t know, but they began growing wheat on hundreds of acres and did very well. My great-grandfather was supposedly quite a Lothario who had a mistress tucked away in Wisconsin while my great-grandmother “slaved away” on the farm.

Decades later, as the family grew exponentially and the wheat farms multplied, some made a killing off those infamous federal farm subsidies. A few, according to family lore, lived a grand lifestyle, all thanks to Uncle Sam.

I asked my mother if my great-grandmother missed Switzerland and she looked at me with soulful eyes, saying sadly, “Oh yes.” I could see why when my father, mother, brother and I visited North Dakota several times, either by train or car. I could not believe that there could be a flatter place on earth with the straightest possible roads and two-lane highways. Eastern Montana and North Dakota were the least interesting places, geographically, I’d ever seen. It was no surprise to me that many vehicular accidents were the result of drivers nodding off from sheer boredom. Yes, boredom. I could not fathom how anyone could bear to live on seemingly endless flat land that became synonymous, for me, with a mind-numbing lack of stimulation.

My mother spoke Swiss German until she went to school and picked up the English language. She had no trace of an accent and claimed she couldn’t remember any “Swiss,” but I’d catch her breaking into Swiss on a few telephone calls to her beloved grandmother. I’ve often wished she’d taught me some Swiss but figured out later that she was embarrassed, feeling that showing her bilingual skills would make her appear backward. She fought to be seen as a true American. And then there was that in the World War II era, the German language — even the Swiss version — made many Americans nervous. When I asked, she told me that yes, for a time it was a stigma to evidence any linkage with Germany.

Well, I’ve veered far afield. My original points were that I am tickled that North Dakota is getting so much ink these days and, most of all, that it is gratifying to see North Dakotans live up to the hearty, thrifty pioneers like my great-grandparents and great uncles and aunts, who worked that land in searing summer heat and below-zero winters.

North Dakotans espy and seize opportunities in every way possible. They know that it is rare for a politician in Washington, D.C. to ever think of their state. Presidential candidates rarely campaign there. They’re envious of South Dakota, which gets far more attention.

Why couldn’t North Dakota have had a Deadwood that’s become legendary, inspired an outstanding HBO series, and brings thousands of tourists? Why can’t they have a national monument of four dead presidents? Why couldn’t they have had a Black Hills Gold Rush? And most of General George Custer’s memorials?

Well, now they have fracking and drones. Smart North Dakotans are “playing the hand they’ve been dealt” but with a lot of “inspiration and perspiration.”

They prove that brains, foresight, hard work by a lot of citizens can reap high tech successes, not just wheat (and U.S. Dept. of Agriculture subsidies).