- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The unmanned aircraft industry is growing so quickly in North Dakota that two Fargo companies almost signed their recent merger deal on a napkin, an executive said Wednesday.

Aerobotic Innovations, a software company, and Packet Digital, a hardware engineer, formed Botlink after executives from the companies met at a chamber of commerce dinner about a month ago. Shawn Muehler, 29, CEO of Aerobotic Innovations, said the companies were “very close” to signing a contract before dessert was served.

“Within a week, really, we got everything done,” Muehler said Wednesday at a drone conference held inside a hangar at the Fargo Jet Center.

The new company is building a platform meant to help drones stay up in the air longer while collecting and distributing real-time data through cellular networks. It expects to release its first product in 30 days, said Terri Zimmerman, the Packet Digital CEO who also will head Botlink.

“We realized we both shared this passion to bring new technology into this space,” Zimmerman said of the marriage. “We realized that we are more powerful together by combining that hardware and software expertise.”

The two companies are located about a block apart in downtown Fargo. Packet Digital designs power management solutions, such as extending battery life, for portable electronic devices. Aerobotic Innovations has a cloud-based platform that features fully-automated drone control from a smart phone or tablet.

“It’s really a match made in heaven,” Meuhler said. “The question is, why haven’t we done it sooner?”

Meuhler said there are several favorable factors for drone development in North Dakota, including access to state funding, expertise that includes the University of North Dakota aviation school, the largest airspace in the country for drone testing, and government leaders who are accessible in a small state.

“North Dakota is by far the most forward leading state and government out there right now when it comes to unmanned systems,” Meuhler said. “Really within the next year you are going to see the whole state open up specifically for this industry.”

Robert Becklund, executive director of North Dakota’s drone test site, one of six such facilities in the country and the first one to begin testing, said in his keynote speech Wednesday that the state has been aggressive in minimizing costs for potential business ventures. It could be “especially easy” for local entrepreneurs to get started, he said.

“We recommend that you take advantage of us,” Becklund told the group.

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