Tom Swoyer Jr. can recall in 2011 sitting around a boardroom table in the UND Center for Innovation with local leaders discussing the idea of building an airport for unmanned aircraft.
The pitch for an aviation business park on vacant Grand Forks Air Force Base land came at a time when commercial flight of the aircraft, also known as drones, was prohibited by the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Five years ago, this was just a crazy idea that we had to spend day upon day just explaining to people and convince ourselves that this made sense,” he said.
Last week, Swoyer sat in the same room but with a much different view. As the principal developer behind Grand Sky aviation and technology park, he has seen the business venture transform from an idea pitched for an empty expanse of prairie to a growing enterprise that has attracted large defense contractors to its doorstep.
Signed leases from industry giants Northrop Grumman Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. created national fanfare for the project last year.
“Grand Sky offered a whole bunch of things we thought were worthy of investment,” Everett Dunnick, program manager of General Atomics’ flight training academy at the park, told a crowd gathered for a drone business event last week.
No major tenant announcement came this year, but Swoyer said the focus had instead been on getting the operational side of the park up and running. Those efforts have included finalizing repairs to the concrete taxiway connecting Grand Sky to the base’s runway and signing a joint-use agreement allowing tenants to use the runway.
“It’s great to have a drone airport, but if you can’t fly from it, it’s just a business park,” Swoyer said.
In addition to solidifying operations, construction crews also are finishing work on installing infrastructure for Grand Sky.
Next year, Swoyer said he hopes to see construction continue, with a focus shifting to a building with space for multiple tenants. The idea went dormant this year but is expected to be revived and see a construction start this spring.
“We want that coming out of the ground and ready to be occupied next year,” he said, adding he thought such a building could fill in a short time.
Tenant recruitment overall remains a high priority for Grand Sky Development Co. staff as well as increasing the park’s offerings.
The next big step for the drone industry in its entirety is companies receiving permission to fly aircraft beyond the line of pilot’s visual sight for commercial purposes, and Swoyer wants Grand Sky to be at the front of the line for those looking to conduct such flights.
“When I wake up in the morning, I have two things I worry about,” he said. “One is getting more tenants into Grand Sky and the second one is to work out the final agreement with the Air Force so we can utilize their radar for beyond-line-of-sight flying. We are working hard to be the first in the country to reliably and repeatedly fly beyond line of sight on a commercial basis.”
Grand Forks Air Force Base has played an integral role in the development of the aviation park.
Grand Sky is the product of an enhanced-use lease between the base and Grand Forks County. The county leases land from the base and, in turn, subleases it to Swoyer’s company, Grand Sky Development Co.
The 217-acre project broke ground in September 2015 and since has seen two facilities constructed by tenants Northrop Grumman and General Atomics.
General Atomics flew its first aircraft from the business park in celebration of its Grand Sky training academy graduating its first class of pilots in July. The company has established a temporary hangar for the academy but has started work on a $2.5 million permanent facility.
To the south, Northrop Grumman is finishing up construction of its $10 million research and development building.
In total, Grand Sky is expected to see $200 million to $300 million in development over a 10-year period. It’s a tall order to fill, but Swoyer said the community’s team approach in taking the risk to invest in such a venture is a driving force behind the project’s continued development.
“I can tell you there were plenty of nights I woke up in the middle of the night thinking there is no way this is going to work,” Swoyer said. “But you keep solving the next problem — and the next problem and the next problem. And you keep your head down, and you keep working as a team and the next thing you know, you have a drone airport.”