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(Left to right) Reps. Joshua Boschee, Ed Gruchalla and Gary Skukut share a few words Wednesday in front of a Global Hawk unmanned aircraft in a hangar at Grand Forks Air Force Base. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.

Grand Forks Air Force Base provides glimpse of UAS research, development to state leaders

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Part of the region’s future in unmanned aerial systems is evolving behind the gates of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“UAS aren’t going to go away,” base commander Col. Paul Bauman said.  “They’re here to stay and their uses are going to get broader.”

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Those gates opened Wednesday morning and base staff welcomed a group consisting of the state Legislature’s Economic Impact Committee, Grand Forks city leaders and others with UAS ties.

The group heard from staff members with a variety of roles in the base’s UAS mission.  

The base’s focus on unmanned systems is another piece of the Grand Forks region’s growing potential to lead the country in UAS research and development.

That potential was the first topic of the committee’s morning meeting held before the group boarded a bus and headed to the base.

“The UAS industry is just taking off here,” said Dana Sande, vice president of business development at the UND Aerospace Foundation. “We are poised to be leaders.”

Pushing the envelope

While North Dakota’s UAS research test site will assist the Federal Aviation Administration with shaping regulations for unmanned flight operations, the base also is contributing.

Grand Forks Air Force Base is home to three unmanned aerial system platforms. The first is the base’s own Global Hawk mission. The other two platforms are managed by the U.S. Border Patrol and the National Guard.

The diversity of UAS flying through its airspace sets Grand Forks Air Force Base apart from other bases, according to its staff.

“There is no other location in the U.S. where multiple UAS can fly concurrently,” said Staff Sgt. Obed Salazar.

Add the fact that the base’s airspace remains unrestricted a majority of the time because 90 percent of its air traffic comes from UND’s flight school, and the situation becomes even better.

 “No other base is doing this,” according to Lt. Col. Jon Castellanos, who oversees the base’s airfield. “No other base is pushing the envelope. No other base is flying multiple UAS platforms in unrestricted air space.”

The UAS research at the base and test site would provide guidance in setting departure and arrival procedures for unmanned aircraft nationwide. The FAA is required to integrate unmanned systems into national airspace by September 2015.

Grand Sky

While on the base, legislators also were able to stand on the future site of Grand Sky, an unmanned systems business and research park.

The development is the result of an enhanced-use lease between the base and Grand Forks County.

Rent payments would stay at the base, reducing its operating budget, said Terry Sando, UAS sector senior manager with the Grand Fork Region Economic Development Corp.

The 217-acre development would require an estimated $300 million in infrastructure investment in the next decade.

Its first buildings are expected to be completed in the summer of 2015. Offices, hangars, data centers, repair shops and other facilities would be located within approximately 1.2 million square feet of space.

Grand Sky is expected to create 2,000 to 3,000 high-paying technology jobs. It presents an opportunity to keep UAS graduates from nearby UND and Northland Community & Technical College in the region, Sando said.

Numbers provided by UND show the number of students majoring in unmanned systems has increased from seven in spring 2010 to 134 in fall 2013.

“Students are being snatched up as fast as they are graduating,” Sando said.

The average starting salaries for jobs in the development are estimated at $50,000 to $130,000.

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Brandi Jewett
Brandi Jewett is an enterprise reporter for the Grand Forks Herald with beats focusing on northwest Minnesota, unmanned aircraft systems and East Grand Forks city government. Other positions she has held at the Herald include Grand Forks city government reporter, general assigment reporter and news intern. A native of Valley City, N.D., 24 years worth of winters haven't scared her out of the state yet. Follow her work at www.grandforksherald.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @brandijewett. Send tips and story ideas to bjewett@gfherald.com. 
(701) 780-1108
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