Two years ago, snow-covered fields and concrete would have greeted those overlooking a 217-acre area southwest of Grand Forks Air Force Base.
After years of planning and partnerships, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein instead found himself inside multi-million unmanned aircraft systems facilities Thursday. The buildings are the result of two defense contractors, Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, capitalizing on North Dakota’s growing UAS industry.
The facilities were a stop on a tour of the base organized for Goldfein, who has been on the job for five months after serving as vice chief of staff for a year. In all, he has notched 33 years of Air Force service, and Grand Forks Air Force Base has been a topic of conversation in that time.
“I have heard about the community partnership here at this base my entire career, and it’s legendary,” Goldfein said. “And it’s actually great to see it in person.”
In his position, Goldfein oversees more than 600,000 airmen, about 1,200 of which fly unmanned aircraft. That group represents the largest pilot force in the Air Force, Goldfein told the crowd.
The increasing use of UAS by commercial and military entities worldwide has caused rapid industry growth, especially in North Dakota where private and public partners have come together on ventures such as Grand Sky, an aviation and technology park located on Grand Forks Air Force Base.
In Northrop Grumman’s recently completed $10 million research and development facility at Grand Sky, Goldfein heard local and state leaders recount successes and progress made in the state.
And U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D, promised more to come.
Goldfein’s visit comes just before officials say they expect the Federal Aviation Administration to announce that it is granting the Northern Plains UAS Test Site permission to conduct beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
The ability to pursue BVLOS flight at the base and Grand Sky is rooted in several factors, according to Test Site Executive Director Nick Flom, including low population near the area, little air traffic and advanced radar systems at the base.
Hoeven noted he expected to see the FAA grant permission next week, before the start of the new year.
Flight beyond the line of sight is predicted by industry experts to unlock the full potential of unmanned aircraft used for commercial applications, such as energy infrastructure inspection or agricultural use. The U.S. military has utilized it for years, but the FAA has been cautious with awarding such capabilities to commercial operators.
“We’ll be able to do research, testing, training and deployment without chase aircraft statewide across North Dakota,” Hoeven said. “That can’t be done anyplace else in the country and will give us a competitive edge. This opens opportunities for military and commercial applications and will attract more companies like Northrop Grumman and General Atomics to set up operations at Grand Sky.”
A potential economic boon from attracting more activity with BVLOS capabilities would mark a continuing return on investment for North Dakota. The state has dedicated more than $37 million to research and economic development initiatives related to unmanned aircraft technology.
“At the end of the day, when the line-of-sight issue is solved and commercialization can happen, we want to be positioned to be right up front so we can take advantage,” said Keith Lund, vice president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. “We are and will continue to be the epicenter of UAS activity in the world.”