GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Two unmanned aircraft systems projects centered on the Grand Forks Air Force Base are on schedule, according to officials.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., met with industry and local representatives Wednesday to discuss an application to make the base a test site for integration of unmanned aircraft in commercial airspace and the development of a technology park on the grounds of the base.
“We have and are continuing to build the premier UAS center in the nation,” he said.
The application to the Federal Aviation Administration for the national test site is important for the growth of UAS technology in the Grand Forks region, Hoeven said.
Both military uses, such as the air base’s Global Hawk detachment and the North Dakota Air National Guard’s use of Predator drones, as well as civilian uses, such as UND’s and Northland Community and Technical College’s UAS programs, stand to gain from the Grand Forks Air Force Base becoming a test site.
The test site would allow the integration of remotely controlled aircraft into airspace already occupied by manned aircraft.
“The FAA’s main focus is safety,” Hoeven said. “Where else would it be better to test the integration of unmanned aircraft than in this region, where we already have so much in place?”
Although there are around 50 applicants for only six test sites, many at the meeting felt confident about the base’s chances. After the final part of the application is turned in this week, it is anticipated the FAA will tour some of the top applicant sites in the summer. A decision from the FAA is expected in December.
“Having it in writing is one thing, but telling them why we should have it while they walk the ground is something we are looking forward to,” said Mike Corcoran with UND’s UAS Center of Excellence.
Visits are not expected until June, but “We’re ready here in May,” Corcoran said.
While officials are working to bring integrated airspace to the base, the Grand Forks Base Realignment Committee is hoping to attract private businesses to the base with a new UAS technology park on land leased from the base.
Grand Forks City Councilman Dana Sande said members of BRIC were heading to San Antonio, Texas, next week for negotiations with the Air Force in regard to the lease. He said the search is on for a company to serve as the anchor of the park, and having the base as a national test site would only serve to attract more companies for the park.
Having approval for the lease would also strengthen the application for the national test site, too, he said.
“We can do the park without the test site, but having the test site at the base would attract more ancillary companies to the park,” Sande said.
Sande said BRIC has taken precautions to ensure the lease would not hurt the chances of the base being selected for a potential air tanker mission, adding that the economic impact of a technology park at the base would be large.
“The (park) should have a greater economic impact on the region than anything in the last several years,” he said. “Imagine the tanker mission; it could bring hundreds of jobs to the base. But a new technology park along with the test site status would bring thousands of jobs and families to Grand Forks.”
Hoeven said the progress of both projects, specifically the potential economic impact of having a national test site and technology park, must be on display at the international UAS summit in Grand Forks on May 30-31.
“We need a huge turnout at the summit to show what we’re doing here,” he said.
Early registration for the summit is around 800 people, twice the number of early registrants at last year’s conference.