The transfer of a group of Global Hawk drones from the U.S. Air Force to Northrop Grumman is now complete.

Lawmakers, local officials, Grand Forks business leaders and executives from Northrop Grumman met on Wednesday, Oct. 13, to officially recognize the transfer of four retired Global Hawk drones. The drones will be retrofitted with new equipment, then flown out to either the east or west coast where they will be used to assist in hypersonic missile testing. The drones were transferred to Northrop’s facility from Grand Forks Air Force Base. They arrived at the base at the end of July.

“The future security of our country depends in big, big way, on the incredible work that you and the other technology aerospace companies we have (are doing),” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., when addressing the roughly 60 people gathered to mark the occasion.

Hoeven recapped the mission earlier in the day, when he gave the keynote address kicking off the UAS Summit & Expo at the Alerus Center. The new program will transform those Global Hawks into Range Hawks, and they will be outfitted with new sensors that allow them to track hypersonic missiles. Previously those drones tracked ground-based targets, or acted as flying communication nodes. The new sensors, Hoeven said, will allow the drones to “look up” instead of down.

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Hoeven said the four drones have “graduated” from flying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, to testing out new missile platforms.

Two of the large drones -- they have a wingspan of 130 feet -- were inside Northrop’s 35,000 square foot hangar on Wednesday, with portions of their engines exposed. The drones are scarred and battered, and covered with aeronautical tape. From every side they appear as instruments of war. They have flown missions equivalent to 3 and a half years of flight time.

Becoming Range Hawks, part of the Department of Defense's Sky Range program, will bring them back to life. But George Rumford, director of the DoD’s Test Resources Management Center and who is overseeing the project, said that will take quite some time. Northrop will conduct some of the retrofitting, and will contract out for the rest of it.

That means engineers and workers at Northrop Grumman will have plenty of work on their hands for the foreseeable future. Mike Fridolfs, site director for Northrop Grumman, said the company is adding more employees to accommodate for the retrofitting, and it is doing it by hiring locally.

“We continue to welcome more interns and full time employees,” said Fridolfs. “Strong partnerships with University of North Dakota and Northland Community and Technical College remain committed to helping place students and new graduates in this local UAS community.”

The four “graduated” Global Hawks, older models called Block 20s, appear to be just the beginning of the Sky Range program. Hoeven said when the Air Force retires the 20 drones in Block 30, newer models, they will also be repurposed for the Sky Range program, and could wind up at Grand Sky. The addition of those drones, Hoeven said, means “good jobs and economic growth for the region.”