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Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Co., speaks to attendees at an event to commemorate the the official opening of Grand Sky, an unmanned aerial systems business park, at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Air Force Base on Feb. 18. PHOTO: MEDIA PRODUCTIONS


A baby industry took a few big steps forward recently at the Grand Forks Air Force Base near Grand Forks, N.D. Military officials were joined Feb. 18 by North Dakota's legislative delegation and more than 100 community members and supporters to commemorate the official signing of an enhanced use lease (EUL) establishing Grand Sky, the first unmanned aerial systems (UAS) business park in the country. While still in its early stages, the unique development offers potential huge impacts for not only the blossoming UAS industry but a number of the region's largest established industries, including energy and agriculture.

Construction of the 217-acre park is expected to begin this spring and will include 1.2 million square feet of hangar, office, shop, lab and data center space available on a build-to-suit basis. With lease in hand, the development group is now able to actively pursue potential tenants interested in acquiring space to conduct UAS-related research and test their products. It is expected that several companies will quickly sign on, including defense contractor Northrop Grumman, maker of the Global Hawk and other large unmanned systems. The company has previously signed a letter of intent to establish itself as an anchor tenant of the park. During his comments at the Feb. 18 event, Sen. John Hoeven told attendees the company has assured him it will sign a lease and have employees based at Grand Sky next year.

Hoeven and other local and state officials have worked for years to establish Grand Sky. Speakers at the lease signing event, including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Congressman Kevin Cramer, Grand Forks County Commissioner John Schmisek and Kathleen Ferguson, principal deputy assistant security of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, noted the collaborative and years-long effort required to bring Grand Sky to life. Under the agreement, the Air Force will lease the park's acreage to Grand Forks County for 50 years. The county has agreed to sublease the land to Texas-based Grand Sky Development Co. "This unprecedented public/private venture between the Air Force, county and the private sector will allow government and private firms to have a home base as they fly their drones in North Dakota and around the country," Grand Sky Development President Tom Swoyer says.

According to Swoyer, the unique lease agreement provides risk mitigation for the county, but he is confident his company will be successful in developing the property. "We couldn't be more excited about it," he says, adding that the company has been in talks with numerous potential tenants but wasn't able to finalize lease agreements until the EUL was made official. "Before we were talking about what could be," he says. "Now we have the opportunity to provide hard-bound proposals that are legally binding for us and the tenant so people can make a concrete business plan."

Target industries for the park include the region's largest and anticipated early adopters of the technology -- energy and agriculture. Three data center groups have expressed interest in the park already, according to Swoyer, all of which work with agriculture and other industries including health care. Also, because the park is able to handle all types of UAS, companies which specialize in very large drones, such as Northrop Grumman, could utilize the park and test space to explore potential commercial applications of large UAS. "Imagine the kind of data we could gather flying a Global Hawk around the Red River Valley or across North and South Dakota combined," Swoyer says. "The aggregation of agricultural data is what could be really great and that's really what Grand Sky can do because we have access to the Grand Forks Air Force Base runway."

Expanded Airspace Bodes Well for Research, Industry

Grand Sky's official opening came on the heels of several announcements which bode well for the northern Plains' UAS industry. On Feb. 11, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a request by the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial Systems Test Site to conduct UAS test flights through an expanded area of North Dakota's airspace. The expanded airspace is excellent news for research institutions including North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota and Lake Region State College, whose previous research had been restricted to small portions of airspace.

John Nowatzki, agricultural machine systems specialist at NDSU's agricultural and biosystems engineering department, says the expanded airspace will allow his department to conduct research projects throughout the state that were otherwise not possible. Last year, for example, the department was only allowed to conduct UAS flights within a two-mile area around NDSU's research extension center at Carrington. Now, in addition to continued research at the Carrington location the department can move ahead with planned research specific to canola diseases at the Langdon research extension center and examine oil development's impact on crops at NDSU's Williston and Dickinson research centers.

Nowatzki firmly believes extensive research must be conducted to determine the economical uses for UAS in ag and other industries, and says that piece of the industry has been missing to date. He foresees three potential models for UAS use in ag: individual use by farm operators, UAS data provided by companies to farmers in certain areas, and large-scale data service providers which could provide a subscription service for farmers to receive their specific data. "What really needs to be determined is what's economical and what's not," he says.

In Minnesota, Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls is also expected to benefit from Grand Sky and contribute further to advancing the industry, particularly related to agriculture. The school has been offering UAS maintenance training since 2011 and imagery analysis training since 2013, and last summer received approval to use unmanned systems to collect agricultural data in Roseau County. Jon Beck, UAS program manager at NCTC, says the school recently received a $250,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to continue researching the use of digital imagery in agriculture, which will enable it to continue building on knowledge gained through last summer's research as well as participate in additional projects over the next three years. Among them is a project with a local implement dealer to explore how digital imagery collected by unmanned systems can be converted into data that would be accepted by a machine and used to conduct precision applications of herbicide.

Northland's experience in successfully navigating through the FAA's UAS certification process and expertise in UAS technology is also being put to use in a new partnership recently formed between Northland, Central Lakes College in Brainerd and Staples, Minn., and Ridgewater College in Willmar and Hutchinson, Minn. Dubbed AgCentric, the program was developed to address the need for advanced agricultural training, including integrating high-tech tools such as UAS into training for ag students. The program allows Northland to expand its UAS expertise to provide training for additional students and to guide other colleges in their potential pursuit of FAA certifications to conduct UAS research.

Likewise, Beck says North Dakota's recent UAS developments are good news for Northland. "Any win for North Dakota is a win for Northland," he says, adding that as Grand Sky is developed, it will provide a boost in demand for Northland's UAS students. "I think over the next few years developments like Grand Sky are really going to foster an environment where we aren't going to be able to produce enough students to meet the demands."

FAA Finally Speaks

After years of waiting, the FAA released its proposed regulations for small UAS (weighing less than 55 pounds) on Feb. 15, to mostly positive responses from stakeholders. The proposed rules require operators to obtain a UAS operator's permit, rather than a pilot's license as some feared, but also require operators to maintain a line-of-sight with the unmanned systems, making some potential projects impossible to pull off. Small UAS would also be restricted from flying at altitudes greater than 500 feet above ground level.

"We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules," FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement. "We want to maintain today's outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry."

In its proposal, the FAA also said it is seeking comment on how it can further leverage the UAS test site program (Grand Forks is one of six test sites in the nation) and a UAS Center of Excellence to further spur innovation at "innovation zones."

The proposed rules are open for public comment for 60 days, after which the agency will review and issue its final ruling, a process likely to take some time.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in a statement that the proposed rules "strike a much-needed balance between privacy and safety concerns, while providing room to develop innovative technology that can help embolden North Dakota farmers with agricultural production and spur more growth in our state's energy sector, as well as encourage key safety technique like spotting energy pipeline leaks and ruptures." Heitkamp and other legislators vowed to continue working with FAA officials to advance the UAS industry and ensure the Grand Forks test site remains on the cutting edge of innovation.

Industry Moves In

Meanwhile, just two days prior to the FAA's long-awaited proposed rules, Wahpeton, N.D.-based ComDel Innovation Inc. announced it will manufacture unmanned systems and components for Florida-based UAS and data collections services provider Altavian.

Gov. Dalrymple heralded the agreement as the first state's first UAS manufacturing venture. "This partnership represents another important step in our ongoing work to grow North Dakota's UAS industry and to become a national hub for UAS manufacturing, research and development," he said in a news release.

Jim Albrecht, president at ComDel Innovation, said the agreement with Altavian will allow his company the opportunity to expand its composite materials experience and extend its aerospace expertise into a new sector of the industry. ComDel was introduced to Altavian by Tommy Kenville, chairman of Grand Forks-based Unmanned Applications Institute International, and Brian Opp, manager of aerospace development at the North Dakota Department of Commerce, who he says had identified Altavian as having a premier product and suggested ComDel as a potential North Dakota-based manufacturer.

Thomas Rambo, chief operating officer at Altavian, says his company was attracted to ComDel because of its reputation for producing quality products and because it had an interest in expanding into the UAS market. "They're fantastic," he says of the company.

Altavian's products are expected to begin rolling off the assembly line in Wahpeton this summer, although it remains to be determined how quickly. Altavian is currently in the process of taking orders for its product and declined to release any specific goals for the year. Albrecht says that if demand warrants it, ComDel could add between four and 15 new employees to keep up with Altavian's orders. ComDel would also like to produce UAS-related products for other companies and has had early discussions with several, Albrecht says.

Altavian's target applications for its products include precision agriculture, infrastructure analysis, natural resource management and conservation. The company, which launched in 2011, initially targeted the civil market but with an industry on the brink of booming it has now switched its sights to focus on commercial operations, according to Rambo. He also mentioned a specific focus on oil operations in North Dakota in addition to the state's agriculture industry and said the company will likely establish a presence at Grand Sky, although it's too early to speculate how large that presence might be. Rambo says Altavian views North Dakota as a great opportunity for the company as it represents "a microcosm of the entire U.S. airspace," complete with a national test center, manufacturing capabilities, and demand from major industries like energy and agriculture. "It's really a little test case," he says. "If we can work in North Dakota, we can work anywhere in the world." PB

Kris Bevill

Editor, Prairie Business