North Dakota opened up more aerospace and defense opportunities in the state when on October 12, state leaders cut a ribbon on a new $7 million multi-tenant facility at Grand Sky, the nation’s first commercial UAS-focused business park. This and a few other recent developments, strengthened North Dakota’s claim to being the most drone-friendly state in the country. The key is an unparalleled triumvirate of government, private industry and academic leaders all flying in the same direction.
Located on Grand Forks Air Force Base, Grand Sky is a 217-acre business and aviation park that offers 1.2 million square feet of hangar, office, shop, laboratory and data collection space unlike any other in the world.
Grand Sky is the beneficiary of the U.S. Air Force’s only enhanced use lease with a county government that carves out a piece of one of its active military bases for commercial UAS research, training and operations.
“This allows us to use a military runway, integrate military digital airborne surveillance radar and give our partners unmatched access to the national airspace for 60 miles in a 180 degree pie wedge, from the ground up to 18,000 feet,” says Grand Sky Development Co. President Thomas Swoyer Jr.
Grand Sky is a commercial facility with FAA permission for beyond visible light of sight (BVLOS) flight-testing without the requirement of a chase plane, says Swoyer.
Gaining permission for widespread operation of drone BVLOS is crucial to the industry’s long-term viability.
Grand Sky exists to take this challenge head on. Since its inception, civil drones have logged 7,236 BVLOS flight hours at Grand Sky over more than 1608 missions, at 4 to 5 hours a shot. Anchor partners Northop Grumman and General Atomics, both of which built their own multi-million dollar facilities at Grand Sky, have trained more than 600 civilian and military drone operators there, including coalition partners. This combination of military and civilian UAS operations at one location sets North Dakota apart.
It also makes for decent business. UAS-related visitors infuse more than $94.1 million in wages annually into the local economy. In the last two years alone, the UAS ecosystem contributed to the creation of more than 365 jobs with annual salaries of $81,000.
George Mason University’s Mercatus Center gave North Dakota top billing in its 2020 Fifty-State Report Card, Which States Are Prepared for the Drone Industry? North Dakota has 40.0 drone-related jobs per 100,000 people, second among all states, helped by drone-friendly state laws.
It’s the direct result of a coordinated effort to make North Dakota the epicenter of the UAS industry. To date, the state has devoted more than $85 million to UAS infrastructure, enabling additional private sector investment.
This infusion of funding has set into motion some of the nation’s firsts in support of the UAS industry. In 2020, the test site launched Vantis, the first-of-its-kind statewide beyond visual line of sight unmanned traffic management network to enable advanced drone and air taxi operations across the state. The creation of Vantis coincided with the state’s entry into the FAA’s current BEYOND R&D program, which succeeded the UAS Integration Pilot Program when it ended last October.
Until now, Vantis has remained physically separate from Grand Sky. The opening of Grand Sky’s new multi-tenant building changes that. The NPUASTS signed a 10-year lease and moved its Vantis headquarters from the University of North Dakota’s Tech Accelerator building to the Grand Sky complex. Vantis’ brand new mission and network operations center is now located there.
“The Vantis mission ops center will take BVLOS system integration to a whole new level,” Swoyer explained. The plan is to launch UAS from Grand Sky and use Vantis radars to fly BVLOS across the state. Swoyer projects these flights will start occurring by mid-2022. His vision is to create the ultimate middle-mile commercial UAS long range logistics hub, using a page from the military’s playbook.
“We can use the Vantis ops center to safely project materials to forward operating locations at a standoff distance,” he said. “The possibilities for wildland firefighting, wildlife and natural resource management, and disaster management are endless let alone package delivery.”
Expect the entire North Dakota public-private team to be along for the long haul. On October 11, the NPUASTS announced it selected Thales, a global technology giant, as its long-term systems integrator to design, operate and maintain the Vantis network at Grand Sky.
That same week, North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, helped to decommission several of Northop’s Global Hawk Block 20 aircraft, which will now be modified into Range Hawks at Grand Sky facilities. “The Air Force will say these Global Hawks are ‘retired,” he said during a keynote at the 15th Annual UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks, “but actually they are going to graduate’ by becoming Range Hawks in the larger Sky Range program.”
Range Hawks will be airborne platforms to test hypersonic missiles. They will become part of Sky Range, a new Department of Defense test range in the sky to provide an alternative to costly, cumbersome and highly visible ground and sea based ranges.
“We are offering an opportunity to the U.S. military here that they cannot find anywhere else,” Hoeven noted. “They can do hypersonic testing faster, cheaper and better if they are doing it here. Because nobody has the kind of partners we have.”
And so it appears that partners make all the difference in advancing the UAS industry in North Dakota, whether on the commercial or the military side. This could also prove true for any other state that wants to make a run for its reigning title.