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Published May 20, 2010, 09:01 AM

Companies taking advantage of growing unmanned aircraft industry in Grand Forks, ND

By: Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks (ND) Herald

When computer programmers at Bold Method need to consult with an unmanned aircraft pilot, they can either fly to air bases in the Southwest or they can head down the road to UND.

The Grand Forks firm is developing simulators for the Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft systems and that sometimes requires talking with pilots to ensure virtual reality matches reality, said partners Aleks Udris and Colin Cutler.

One of the advantages of being in Grand Forks, they said, is they can often tap the exper-tise at the university’s UAS Center instead of paying big bucks to fly on short notice to Nevada or Arizona, where many Air Force drone pilots are based.

The UAS Center is here largely because Grand Forks Air Force Base will be the home of several squadrons of unmanned aircraft in the near future and local, state and national leaders believe the industry represents a golden opportunity for local businesses.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is one of the believers and, today and Friday, he’s hosting the second annual UAS Action Summit in Grand Forks. Businesses such as Bold Method will be there as well as potential partners such as Northrop Grumman, the makers of the Global Hawks that will be stationed here.

Here’s a brief glimpse at some of those local businesses and groups —Bold Method, Ideal Aerosmith and Laserlith — and how they think they’ll seize the unmanned aircraft opportu-nities.

BOTH METHOD

Founders Udris and Cutler used to develop software for UND’s School of Aerospace Sci-ences and consulted on the side until they realized the side business was making them as much money as their day jobs.

So they formed Bold Method, a software firm that, reflecting the founders’ aviation inter-ests, is now focused on making simulators for unmanned aircraft. They didn’t seem intimi-dated by the fact that they’re now running with the big boys, defense industry giants with workforces in the tens of thousands and budgets in the billions.

That’s because they’re working on simulators that run on laptops, not the million-dollar simulators that come complete with life-sized control stations. Laptop simulators, while less sophisticated than more high-end simulators, are useful for new student pilots.

Udris said what they do is small potatoes for the giants, who would rather subcontract the work than do it themselves. In fact, Bold Method’s contract is with Tennessee-based Crew Training International, which provides training for the Air Force and NATO.

IDEAL AEROSMITH

Compared to Bold Method, Ideal Aerosmith is a giant with more than 100 employees. Bold Method actually got its start after the partners began a contract with Ideal Aerosmith. But, like the smaller company, Ideal Aerosmith didn’t start out in unmanned aircraft.

Its specialty is precision testing equipment for guidance systems for aircraft and missiles. Basically, they make machines that spin, vibrate and move those systems as if they are in flight and, in some cases, in situations that would otherwise risk tearing the aircraft or mis-sile apart.

Jim Richtsmeier, senior vice president for business growth and technology, said the same equipment can also be adapted to unmanned aircraft sensors.

But more than that, he said, the company can use its expertise in building machines that move with precision to help build sensors that move with precision. For example, the com-pany has specialized gimbals, mechanical structures turning on bearings that can rotate a sensor at an exact speed and angle. It’s not a stretch to use the gimbals as a mount for un-manned aircraft sensors.

Ideal Aerosmith already has experience converting its technology to new fields. Its test equipment has been used to calibrate guidance units on oil drills that can turn under-ground. More recently, it’s been working to produce those guidance units.

LASERLITH

Coincidentally, the main partner in that project is another local firm with its eye on the unmanned aircraft market. Laserlith is developing a production method that makes cheap, reliable and robust MEMS switches. MEMS is short for a mouthful: Microelectromechanical systems. Basically: A tiny little machine that runs on relatively little power.

A MEMS gyroscope is useful in an oil drill sensor, especially ones that Laserlith have de-veloped that officials say can withstand the pounding vibrations and the heat of drilling. The Army thinks it’s pretty useful for guiding artillery shells, which accelerate at thousands of Gs coming out of a cannon muzzle.

A MEMS switch is useful is useful in developing electronically steered antennas for small unmanned aircraft because pint-sized planes don’t pack a lot of power and MEMS switches don’t need a lot of power, according to Laserlith engineer Nick Graziano.

In an electronically steered antenna, such as radar, the antenna doesn’t turn to aim the beam. Instead, each antenna is made up of several transmitters and the sequence in which they fire up determine where the beam points. That sequence, Graziano said, is determined by a switch.

In big aircraft, there’s plenty of power and MEMS have not been needed, he said. But as unmanned aircraft get smaller — say, the size of a remote control plane — the tiny machines become critical, he said.

Laserlith officials said the company relocated to Grand Forks from California because of the opportunities in unmanned aircraft. Last year, they attended the UAS Action Summit and will do so again today. The contacts with big defense contractors are simply invaluable, they said.

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