The recent announcement by General Atomics that it will open a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) training academy in Grand Forks, N.D., adds a second major manufacturer to an unmanned aircraft systems business and technology park that claims to be the first such U.S. facility. The Predator and Reaper manufacturer joins Northrop Grumman, which earlier this year became the first official tenant of the Grand Sky Technology Park.
General Atomics announced on September 22 that it had signed a 10-year lease at the park and planned to break ground on an RPA training academy that will instruct unmanned aircraft flight crews beginning early next year. The manufacturer “expects to welcome its first foreign military sales customers shortly thereafter.”
Situated on 5.5 acres within the 217-acre park, the RPA academy will offer multiple courses per year “using U.S. government-approved curricula,” training up to 60 unmanned aircraft flight crews per year, General Atomics said. It will supplement the manufacturer’s existing Gray Butte and El Mirage flight operations facilities near Palmdale, Calif., where it has trained company and customer crews for the past two decades.
“We selected North Dakota as the site for our new training academy because it offered an unequaled opportunity to support both our U. S. Air Force customer and international customers,” said Frank Pace, General Atomics president of aircraft systems. “Uncongested skies, an optimal training range and strong support for continued RPA development from local, state and federal government representatives…provide a great environment to support our customers’ training requirements.”
The Grand Sky park is co-located with Grand Forks Air Force Base, lying about 18 miles west of the city of Grand Forks. Grand Forks County has an “enhanced use lease” with the Air Force allowing it to lease the property for 50 years. The county has subleased the site to the Grand Sky Development Co.
The development company expects to fully lease 1.2 million square feet of space at the park by 2025, supporting about 3,000 jobs. It is developing the site in four phases. The first, which includes $8 million in infrastructure work, should be completed next month. The state of North Dakota to date has invested $13 million in capital to support infrastructure development.
In April, Northrop Grumman signed a lease for 10 acres at the site, becoming the anchor tenant. The Global Hawk manufacturer was “working to identify specialized opportunities” for a new facility. The permitted uses include general office work, research and development, flight test, training and operations, hangar activities, light manufacturing and assembly and warehouse operations.
Responding to an AIN inquiry, Thomas Swoyer, Grand Sky Development Co. president, said the lease agreements with Northrop Grumman and General Atomics have placed the park ahead of schedule with respect to the number leases signed and acreage committed at this point. “The number of prospective tenants that have shown interest in Grand Sky has also exceeded our expectations at this early stage of the project,” he wrote. “We have received strong interest from nearly two dozen other potential tenants and continue to have conversations with them. We may announce additional tenants by the end of this year.”
Grand Forks is also home to one of six FAA-designated UAS test ranges. The Northern Plains UAS Test Site was the first of the six to receive an FAA certificate of authorization to operate, granted in April 2014. Asked if Grand Sky will support the flight-testing activities of the test range, Swoyer responded: “Absolutely. We are proud to have a relationship with them and they have been very supportive to our tenants. The test site team has already provided invaluable guidance and support to allow our tenants’ training flights to occur.”
Local, state and military officials participated in a ground-breaking ceremony at the site on September 10. A local UAS start-up company—SkySkopes—filmed the event. A day earlier, SkySkopes flew an initial flight using a DJI Spreading Wings S1000 multi-rotor drone, making it the first operator to conduct a commercial unmanned aircraft flight at Grand Sky, and the first with FAA authorization to operate at a military base.
Grand Forks AFB is an Air Mobility Command base that lost its mission of supporting KC-135 tankers under the 2005 base realignment and closure process. It now hosts a detachment of the North Dakota Air National Guard, which operates the MQ-1 Predator, and an Air Combat Command tenant unit that operates the RQ-4 Block 20 and 40 Global Hawk. It is also the UAS training base of the Customs and Border Protection agency, which operates MQ-9 Predator Bs for border surveillance.