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Unmanned future could mean new jobs and residents for the Grand Forks area

On the big screen are a series of still frames from a camera on a Predator unmanned aircraft on a mission over Kabul, Afghanistan. First, we see a large gray passenger plane in the distance. Then, it's almost on top of the smaller Predator before...

UAS Conference
Andrew Roberts (left), NASA, airborne Science Director, makes a powerpoint presentation Wednesday during the opening day of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Al Palmer, Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, Mertom Cox and Lt. Col. Lawrence Spinetta (left to right) listen. Herald photo by John Stennes.
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On the big screen are a series of still frames from a camera on a Predator unmanned aircraft on a mission over Kabul, Afghanistan.

First, we see a large gray passenger plane in the distance. Then, it's almost on top of the smaller Predator before its pilot sees the problem and maneuvers violently to avoid imminent collision. The lack of change in the cityscape below indicates that the Predator never moved, blissfully unaware of its impending doom.

The second to last frame shows the Predator in the clear again, except the turbulence from the passing plane has knocked it off course. The last frame shows the ground that the Predator would shortly slam into.

Florent Martel, a graduate student at UND and chief executive at Machine Visionaries, showed those images to illustrate the danger that unmanned aircraft can pose to manned aircraft -- and to talk about collision avoidance technology his firm is developing based on research licensed from the university.

His audience included representatives from several major defense contractors and their military customers, all of whom are struggling to find a safe way for unmanned aircraft to use airspace dominated by their manned brethren.

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They gathered Wednesday at Grand Forks' Alerus Center to attend the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Summit initiated by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

For fledgling firms such as Martel's, it served as a forum to talk about their work and network. For local officials, it was an occasion to talk about what Grand Forks has to offer as a national hub for unmanned aircraft. And for everybody else, well, they were there because the state's powerful congressional delegation is pushing to make the hub a reality.

The summit provided a glimpse of what that would entail: More activities at Grand Forks Air Force Base, more training and research at UND and, ultimately, more residents and more jobs.

New residents

As with many governmental initiatives in North Dakota, the future arrival of unmanned aircraft at Grand Forks Air Force Base has a strong economic development angle.

Already, the Predator B belonging to Customs and Border Protection has brought crews from General Atomics, the aircraft's manufacturer. More Predators, their cousins the Reapers and Global Hawks are expected to arrive in the next few years and bring more crew members.

Ed Walby, a business development director with Northrup Grumman, the Global Hawk maker, told the audience that more than 330 subcontractors are involved in developing the aircraft. When Global Hawks make their home at a base, he said, workers from some of those subcontractors become permanent members of the base community.

He noted that the military and civilian crew of a Global Hawk is in the range of 275, but unlike manned aircraft, the majority of the crew members would likely never deploy because they can fly the aircraft remotely from Grand Forks about as easily as they can fly it from closer to the battlefield.

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Grand Forks, he said, is expected to be home to at least 15 Global Hawks.

New jobs

Job creation at startups such as Machine Visionaries and Laserlith, another Grand Forks firm at the summit, are a more distant prospect, but the potential is huge.

Laserlith is working on miniature electronically steered antennas that could make it harder to jam remote control of unmanned aircraft and extend the battery life of cell phones.

The military hasn't faced much electronic jamming in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to Laserlith president Cassidy Chao, but that doesn't mean future adversaries more sophisticated than insurgents won't have access to powerful jammers. Jammers bombard their targets with radio waves and could override other radio waves, such as those carrying images sent from an unmanned aircraft to its base.

Steerable antennas could direct a focused beam of radio waves at a receiver instead of broadcasting in all directions, making them harder to jam. Traditionally, though, such antennas are too big and too power-hungry for unmanned aircraft. Laserlith's mini-antennas could change that.

In the same way, it also could reduce power consumption by cell phone antennas.

Chao said one challenge is to be able to build a manufacturing facility without going into so much debt it kills the company, something other firms have succumbed to.

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After the presentation, a representative from Lockheed Martin, the world's biggest defense contractor, approached Chao and exchanged business cards.

"E-mail me," was how the conversation ended.

New projects

Grand Forks Air Force Base itself represents an economic development opportunity, as the numerous current and future improvements demonstrate.

Col. John Michel, the base's indefatigable commander, told the audience in what sounds like a sales pitch that the base has 1,200 acres of open space ripe for development. He talked about the $500 million or so the congressional delegation has pumped into base improvements during the past dozen years, money that got the base a new runway, a new control tower and some of the newest housing in the Air Force.

For the future, the colonel said, the base is getting new fiber optic lines and upgrades to the old bombs and missile storage area from the days when the base had bombers. Asked about that, he told the Herald he just wants to be ready. Who knows if the Air Force might one day want to station its newest fighter, the F-35 Lighting II, in Grand Forks, he said.

Michel said he's also partnered with UND's Energy and Environmental Research Center to install a system converting wind power to hydrogen to hydrogen fuel cell and another system to turn trash into energy. The military is the biggest energy consumer in the federal government, he said, and his goal is to make the base the first in the military to go off grid.

That means it creates enough energy that it doesn't need to be connected to the electrical grid.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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