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Grand Forks County aims to attract UAS industry to Grand Forks Air Force Base

David Dvorak and Greg Williamson watch as Dvorak manually lands the Bruce Tharpe Engineering SuperHauler unmanned aircraft at Camp Grafton South, N.D. The UND Unmanned Aircraft Systems Engineering team did a variety of flight tests with the aircraft. Grand Forks Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg

New jobs and economic growth may be on the horizon for Grand Forks County as county officials work on a land lease to expand Grand Forks Air Force Base.

The Base Realignment Impact Committee, of which the county is a part, proposes to lease 300 acres of unused land from the Department of Defense and develop it for use by the unmanned aircraft industry.

"The DOD leases land for development if it enhances the mission of the base," said Ed Nierode, county administration head and BRIC member. "It would allow the base to generate revenue from this unused land."

The lease also helps expand the presence of unmanned aircraft at the base, leading to more military and civilian jobs, he said.

"We hope to have the land processed for use by Oct. 1," he said.

BRIC presented the lease proposal to companies and government officials earlier this month.

"I'm excited to see where this group is at," Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., told the Herald at the briefing. "This lease could change the field of UAS nationally and even globally."

Companies such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems -- both manufacturers of unmanned aircraft -- have expressed interest in renting space, according to BRIC.

Besides UND, Nierode said other colleges and universities also may express interest in the space.

UND, the first school in the country to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft systems, already has an unmanned aircraft training center at the base.

BRIC proposed the lease after it commissioned a study in May to examine the potential benefits.

The group presented the proposal to Terry Yonkers, assistant secretary of Air Force installations, earlier this month.

John Schmisek, a county commissioner and BRIC member, says he thinks Yonkers liked the fact the lease would bring money to the base that the DOD could use to pursue other projects here.

"We went to get permission to move forward (with the proposal) and we have that now," Schmisek said.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit held in Grand Forks annually also has brought in industry leaders, who have been impressed by current facilities, he said.

The unused land is on the southern portion of the base, but won't stand in the way of bringing in new KC-46 air refueling tankers to the base, Nierode said.

Any new tankers would be stationed on the north end of the base, he said.

Schmisek said the unused land would be appealing to potential renters because the base already is servicing unmanned aircraft, such as Global Hawks and Predator Bs, owned by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The new space would offer renters a place to store aircraft, in some cases with security, and access to restricted airspace over the base, Nierode said.

Unmanned aircraft operate with fewer constraints in restricted airspace.

And the lease may spur additional military unmanned aircraft applications in Grand Forks County.

BRIC is pushing to make the Grand Forks base one of six national unmanned aircraft test sites. The Federal Aviation Administration will announce the test site locations in December.

The committee also is pushing for a Distributed Ground Station core center, a sophisticated intelligence-gathering and analysis facility for unmanned aircraft.

Nierode says expanding the base's unmanned aircraft mission with the lease would make the location more attractive for the center.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1108; or send email to