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Grand Sky Development Company of Grand Forks is among the first in the world to purchase the Northrop Grumman Firebird, an optionally piloted vehicle shown in this photo. (Photo courtesy of Northrop Grumman)

Grand Forks company among first to purchase new long-range drone

GRAND FORKS — Grand Forks’ Grand Sky will be one of the first companies in the world to fly a long-endurance drone produced by Northrop Grumman.

The drone, known as Firebird, is an optionally piloted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft system that can fly anywhere in the country for about 30 hours while performing multiple missions at the same time. Grand Sky is one of the first commercial companies to purchase the aircraft, which has typically been only utilized by government agencies.

“We are excited to bring Firebird to Grand Sky to utilize its long-endurance and variable payload capabilities for commercial customers. Our initial goal is to support energy infrastructure monitoring and humanitarian and disaster relief operations by leveraging Firebird’s range, altitude and endurance,” Grand Sky Development Co. President Tom Swoyer Jr. said in a statement. “We see the incredible efficiencies to be gained in the market with technology like Firebird enabling affordable data gathering on a massive scale not previously available to the commercial market space.”

Grand Sky has been talking to nearly all of the manufacturers of large unmanned aircraft for about three years. While most of the companies sell their aircraft exclusively to civilian or military government agencies, Swoyer said Grand Sky has been advocating for their use in the commercial market.

Firebird brings efficiency to the commercial market that doesn’t currently exist, Grand Sky said in a press release. The Firebird will be based at Grand Sky, and after launch can fly anywhere in the country, staying on station for multiple hours before returning. It has multiple sensors that allow for a range of mission capabilities including domestic security, emergency response, communications and humanitarian and scientific efforts. For example, if a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast, the aircraft could be used as a communications tool for companies or it could be used to help locate survivors.

Firebird has capabilities to meet critical information gaps for Grand Sky’s clients and partners, the company said in a press release.

“It can do an agriculture inspection and a pipeline mission simultaneously,” Swoyer said.

The Firebird also could be used to inspect offshore oil rigs or inspect thousands of miles of pipeline in a single day and flight, Swoyer said.

“It’s far more cost-effective than how those inspections are being done now,” he said.

The Firebird is capable doing habitat analysis and graphic mapping for large swaths of land, which small drones cannot do.