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Getting The UAS Prairie Buzz

It’s hard to explain why the construction of a fence was a significant event in northeastern North Dakota last week.
By Patrick C. Miller | July 23, 2015

Perhaps it’s hard to explain why the construction of a fence was a significant event in northeastern North Dakota last week. This wasn’t just any fence. It’s a security fence that will separate the Grand Sky facilities for the commercial development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) from operations at the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

Completion of the fence will enable contractors, business people and others coming and going from Grand Sky to avoid passing through security checks at the adjacent U.S. Air Force Base. Grand Sky will be able to use its own gate and its own security personnel. Much of the infrastructure for what’s billed as the nation’s first commercial UAS business and aviation park should be completed before the snow flies.

Work on the infrastructure couldn’t begin without the fence. Work on the brick and mortar facilities—soon to be occupied by UAS business tenants such as Northrup Grumman and possibly General Atomics—can’t begin until the infrastructure is completed. So, yeah, getting the fence built is kind of a big deal.

I’ve lived and worked in Grand Forks for the past 23 years, and yet it’s sometimes difficult for me to remember just how far we’ve come to finally reach this point and how long and difficult the journey has been. That was brought home last week when I attended the first meeting of Prairie Buzz, a monthly event intended to inform anyone interested in the region’s UAS happenings.

The guest speakers were Tom Kenville, chairman of the Unmanned Applications Institute, and Terry Sando, UAS sector senior manager with the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.  Kenville covered the history of North Dakota’s UAS development while Sando spoke of the opportunities and burgeoning potential of the UAS industry. They also spent a half hour answering questions from the audience.

Kenville served 15 years as the vice president of business development for the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation during a time when making the university, the air base and the region a hub for UAS development evolved from a possibility into a reality.

On the heels of a flood that devastated Grand Forks and the surrounding area in 1997, the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission announced that it was considering closing the Grand Forks Air Force Base, a move that would have delivered another crippling blow to an already reeling population and suffering economy. Ten years ago, BRAC announced that rather than closing the base, it would give it a UAS mission.

All of this and everything else that has happened since was due to the persistent efforts of North Dakota’s military, business, education and political leaders. Anyone who doesn’t know of the long, winding and often difficult road UAS development in the region has followed would have benefited from hearing Kenville’s presentation at Prairie Buzz.

Today, I’m told that the Grand Forks Air Force Base is the only place in the world from which the Northrup Grumman Global Hawk and the General Atomics Predator and Reaper (flown by U.S. Customs and Border Protection) are operated. Four years ago, UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences was the first in the nation to graduate students with degrees in UAS operations.

Grand Sky, working in cooperation with UND and the adjacent U.S. Air Force base, is a piece of the UAS puzzle that’s been missing. But, thanks to a new fence and years of hard work, it’s possible to begin visualizing the vast opportunities and amazing potential Sando covered during his talk. The UAS future is looking brighter than ever.