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NASA Global Hawk might fly missions out of Grand Forks

A NASA-owned Global Hawk drone could fly research missions to the arctic out of Grand Forks Air Force Base as soon as next year--provided the right final details fall into place.

A NASA Global Hawk (Courtesy NASA)
A NASA Global Hawk (Courtesy NASA)

A NASA-owned Global Hawk drone could fly research missions to the arctic out of Grand Forks Air Force Base as soon as next year-provided the right final details fall into place.

Philip Kenul helps oversee the unmanned aircraft systems program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said a push has been underway for more than a year to bring at least one Global Hawk aircraft to Grand Forks, and at this point, there are dwindling obstacles to making the mission happen.

"Grand Forks, believe it or not, is kind of the optimal location to capture most of the target locations in the arctic," Kenul said. Because the Global Hawk can range so far on so much less fuel than traditional aircraft, crews based in North Dakota could survey anywhere from Alaska to Greenland.

The chief holdup, Kenul said, is congressional budget discussions. Without clear funding, the mission won't materialize.

"We're just waiting to hear-what's the landscape look like at this point?" Kenul said "All this is in the planning stage, but it's starting to solidify a little bit. We're looking at that next stage. We've got plans, we've got partners, we're just waiting for that green light."

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If the project takes off, the closest partners on the project would be NASA, Northrop Grumman and NOAA, with the latter overseeing the majority of the science behind the mission.

Shaun Shenk, public affairs chief with Grand Forks Air Force Base, said the mission is an initiative coming mostly from "across the runway" at Grand Sky, a drone-focused technology park adjacent to the base. Northrop Grumman, partner for the potential mission, is a key tenant.

Kenul, who emphasized that he is a contract employee with NOAA, said research on the mission would help fill in the scientific blank for a "data-sparse" area with a hostile climate. Interest in the polar vortex, arctic weather patterns, ice coverage and even shipping traffic help offer valuable data for border security, rescue missions and meteorological study.

Grand Sky President Tom Swoyer offered excitement at the possibility of the mission. Though it wouldn't bring a lot of new spending into Grand Forks, it would be a significant feather in the community's cap.

"There's only a few places that could handle it," he said. "We're one of them. What it signifies is the strategic location of Grand Forks and what we can support."

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