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A SkyRobot 20RX100 helicopter produced by Norwegian unmanned aircraft manufacturer Robot Aviation sits in snow prior to flight. (Submitted photo)

Norwegian drone firm eyes Grand Forks for U.S. location

After a February visit to North Dakota, a Norwegian unmanned aircraft systems manufacturing firm is back again and is looking to jump into the area's existing business climate.

Leaders from Robot Aviation arrived in Grand Forks this week for a site visit that includes touring potential facilities and meeting with organizations it could partner with for various flight and equipment testing and development initiatives.

"In this area, you have all of the experience we need," Co-founder and CEO Per Haga said. "You have the best flight school in the whole state, and we need pilots."

Guiding Haga and co-founder Ole Homleid through meetings and presentations was Terry Sando, UAS sector senior manager for the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

"They had a great discussion at UND yesterday, and I think there's a number of partnerships there for training and some of the systems coming in," Sando said Tuesday.

In addition to the presence of UND's flight school, Haga cited the expertise of other UAS-focused businesses and open airspace as attributes that make the state an attractive place to set up business.

One factor not deterring the group is the harsh climate that moves into the state over the winter months.

"We have more of the same climate that you have, we're flying in snowy and windy conditions all of the time," Haga said.

Founded in 2008, Robot Aviation manufactures fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, but the product that will likely spur collaboration with other local companies is its autopilot computer program, which can be adapted to numerous aircraft systems.

The program can utilize various autonomous flight models and can accommodate sensors, which are instruments attached to aircraft that often include various types of cameras.

"You have to have some sensor technology, but we don't do that ourselves," Haga said. "In this place, we find a lot of (sensor companies), so that's one more reason to establish in this area."

In addition to regional companies, Robot Aviation leaders also envision a partnership with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, a research organization sanctioned by the Federal Aviation Administration that is headquartered at UND.

Among other duties, the test site collaborates with commercial clients to research possible uses of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, in the client's field of work. It also has special flight permissions from the FAA that could allow Robot Aviation to fly the larger aircraft it manufactures.

Federal guidelines are strict for operating unmanned aircraft weighing more than 55 pounds. Those under the threshold are considered small UAS, and regulations regarding their operation in the U.S. airspace are expected to come out later this year.

Getting set up in Grand Forks would put Robot Aviation and its smaller aircraft models in an optimal position once those regulations and others are in place, Haga said.

Robot Aviation is the one of the latest UAS companies to visit Grand Forks to explore the possibility of conducting work in the area.

More than a dozen site visits were hosted by the local Economic Development Corp. for interested companies in 2015. A majority of those visiting were UAS companies, including Northrop Grumman Co. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.