THIEF RIVER FALLS - Though students have already started learning in the space, Northland Community and Technical College's newly remodeled and expanded aerospace facility opened with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday.

A $6.2 million endeavor, the project renovated nearly 6,000 square feet of space and added another 18,800 square feet to the college's facility at Thief River Falls Regional Airport.

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"Renovation is too light a term," NCTC President Dennis Bona said Thursday. "I think it's a transformation."

The project enhances and replaces a 57-year-old facility and serves as a connection between existing classroom space and the 37,000-square-foot Swenson Hangar, which was built in 1992.

The now 86,000-square-foot space features labs, classrooms and a hangar where more than 20 manned and unmanned aircraft are stored for training. NCTC has unmanned aircraft systems maintenance and imagery analysis programs as well as a maintenance program for manned airplanes.

Following the ribbon cutting, Northland faculty led tours that took visitors through the facility, looking at workshops, classrooms and hangar space. One of the college's most recent donations sat on display for the curious to take a closer look.

Northrop Grumman Corp. recently donated 13 aircraft from its Bat unmanned aircraft systems program to the college for its students to use in their studies. The Bat is classified as a medium-sized unmanned aircraft that can reach heights of 17,000 feet above ground level and fly for 18 hours at a time.

"Our students are going to take these apart and put them back together again," UAS instructor Zack Nicklin told a tour group. Crates surrounding him contained more aircraft and parts that were awaiting shelving space so they could be unpacked.

Five years ago, the UAS program worked off of theory rather than real aircraft, Nicklin said. In the time since, Northrop and others have donated aircraft and accompanying equipment to the school to further the programs.

Besides new aircraft, the aerospace facility also is now home to state-of-the-art learning environments for the college's students, including a classroom that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Cameras installed in the room can be tapped into by laptop and track instructors by voice, moving automatically with them as they walk around the room.

"We've come a long way in five years," said Curtis Zoller, associate dean of aerospace and agriculture.

The renovation and expansion project was funded through bonds from the state of Minnesota and also with grants.