OUR OPINION: 'Airspace' link proves vital to UAVs here
Even before they've arrived, the unmanned aircraft systems coming to Grand Forks have generated a lot of activity here. And once the drones start flying in and out of Grand Forks Air Force Base, they might just power up the creation of a great nu...
Even before they've arrived, the unmanned aircraft systems coming to Grand Forks have generated a lot of activity here. And once the drones start flying in and out of Grand Forks Air Force Base, they might just power up the creation of a great number of jobs.
That is, if the events of this week have a good outcome.
Because this week looks like it's a key link in the chain.
This week, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration will hold hearings that will help shape the North Dakota airspace. The unmanned aerial vehicles that the "systems" will fly need a special kind of airspace, one that restricts commercial and other traffic in the areas the UAVs use.
At the hearings, the Air Force will take testimony on its proposals to restructure nearby airspace to accommodate UAVs.
Here's hoping local pilots approve. If they do, and the proposals get the federal government's OK, Grand Forks will have a crucial asset it can use in its quest to become a world center of UAVs.
Luckily, the rules aren't terribly restrictive. For example, the Air Force's Predator UAV typically flies two to three miles above the Earth. That's high enough so that even when Predators are airborne and active, crop dusters and most other small planes could fly and work with few limitations.
Nor will the UAVs create sonic booms or other intrusions on daily life. Again, Predators fly high overhead "and would be no different than a small private aircraft at that altitude," a draft Q&A on the proposal reads. "Predator training would be unseen and unheard, flying more than two miles above individuals or wildlife on the ground."
So far, so good. Still, local pilots would have to get used to the new restrictions, most of which would affect portions of the airspace over the Cando, N.D., area of northeastern North Dakota and over an area stretching from Harvey, N.D., to Cooperstown, N.D., south of Devils Lake.
But if the proposals go through, those areas and everywhere else in North Dakota will benefit. Because adding "airspace" to northeastern North Dakota's other aviation assets will make this a tremendously attractive area for UAVs.
The region boasts Grand Forks Air Force Base, of course. And the base already has an Air Force commitment to host a UAV mission.
UND plays a vital role, as well. UND's aerospace school not only is one of America's best. It's also the home of the UAV Center of Excellence, a focal point for research and training on unmanned aircraft.
Then there is Grand Forks' role as coordinator of the Border Patrol and Customs departments' UAVs. Couple all that with available airspace, and you've got a combination that no other region in America can match.
Here's just a hint of UAV's spectacular future in aviation: "The Air Force now flies 27 round-the-clock Predator and Reaper orbits in the Central Command area of operation, which involves 450 pilots," according to a recent story in Air Force Times. "But service leaders want 50 orbits to be flown by 2012, which will require 1,100 pilots."
The Grand Forks area could play a key role in those pilots' training.
Here's another indicator: "A Teal Group market study predicts the UAV market will grow from $3.4 billion annually in 2008 to $7.3 billion in 2017," notes Area Indicator's Aviation market report.
"The total market over those years could reach $55 billion, according to Teal Group spokesperson Steve Rozga."
With hard work, dedication -- and designated airspace -- Grand Forks can become a center of this high-flying growth industry.
The airspace proposals will be presented at four public meetings, all of which run from 4 to 7 p.m. Meeting dates are:
n Oct. 6: Grand Forks Red River High School, Rider Room.
n Oct. 7: Lake Region State College, Devils Lake.
n Oct. 8: North Dakota State University, Langdon Research Extension Center, Langdon, N.D.
n Oct. 9: Carrington High School, Carrington, N.D.
Additional information can be found on the project Web site at www.grandforksuaseis.com .