North Dakota eyed for UAS ‘mall’


In a visit to Grand Forks, N.D, just ahead of election day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) got a good look at a spot for a mall — an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) mall.

A key spot on the tour was the University of North Dakota’s UAS facilities. UND would be a key tenant of the mall.

McCain was brought to the area by Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) to ponder the outlook for a UAS business park based in the region, which also is home to the Grand Forks Air Force Base and, just across the river in Minnesota, the Northland Community and Technical College, home to UAS technician, sensor operator, and image analysis programs.

The focus of McCain’s visit was UND’s extensive UAS program, including a Center of Excellence for UAS training and research, a training facility — including UAS simulators — run by UND at the air base, and the school’s flight and maintenance operations center.

Global Hawk arrives at Grand Forks Air Force Base, June 2011. Photo by Ben Trapnell, University of North Dakota

“The mall concept referred to during Sen. McCain’s visit is really easy to understand,” said Eric Icard, a senior business development specialist at the Grand Forks Economic Development Corp. who focuses on attracting UAS-related businesses to the region. “What we see is a UAS business park, including the major facets of training: Pilot, maintenance, sensor operators, and image analysis. That last one is as important as the others — that’s where all the work is on the back end. In fact, I’ve heard it said that for every UAS pilot, there are eight or nine support people, or mission support.”

Icard sees the mall concept as apt because it encompasses the concept of one or more anchor tenants.

“In the context of a UAS mall, we’d be looking at an anchor tenant or tenants such as Northrup Grumman, General Atomics, and Boeing, to name just a handful of possibilities,” Icard said. “And we’re not just talking about military applications. There also are many civilian applications, such as crop analysis, forestry surveys, and the oil and gas industry.”

Icard also noted that with a major anchor tenant such as Northrup Grumman, related companies would likely follow. For example, in the case of Northrup Grumman’s RQ4 Global Hawk, you have multiple manufacturers involved: The airframe is built by Aurora Flight Sciences; the ground control station is built by Raytheon; the communications are from Link Systems (L3); and the engine is from Rolls Royce.

“So though we’re actually talking a business park, we simplify it by using the mall concept,” Icard said.

The mall concept would revolve around a focal point: North Dakota’s relatively uncrowded airspace.

UND, the air base, and North Dakota’s congressional team hope to make the Grand Forks region — with that uncrowded air space — a test site for a federal pilot program that aims to integrate UAS safely into the National Airspace (NAS). The idea for new pilot sites followed the passage of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The FAA has achieved the first UAS milestone included in the 2012 FAA reauthorization — streamlining the process for public agencies to safely fly UAS in the nation’s airspace.

According to Hoeven, the amendment directs the FAA to work with the military to integrate UAS into the NAS. It also directs the FAA administrator to develop the six pilot test sites — dozens of locations are competing to participate in this program — as part of a program for safely flying manned and unmanned aircraft concurrently in the NAS. Further, the legislation requires the FAA to consider geographical and climatic diversity, as well as the location of ground infrastructure, in naming the test sites.

“We brought Senator McCain (to Grand Forks) to show him the tremendous talent and technical capabilities at the school’s UAS program,” said Hoeven who hosted McCain’s visit along with former Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D. “In partnership with Grand Forks Air Force Base, UND and UAS-related businesses, Grand Forks has created the region’s premier hub for UAS training, testing and associated businesses and is a perfect location for one of the sites.”

McCain also weighed in on the mall idea.

“UAS have been a force multiplier for the armed services abroad and for border enforcement here at home,” he said. “The University of North Dakota facility has the potential to fulfill a critical role in the training and educating of future UAS operators. The need for trained operators is a key component for increasing our UAS presence on the southern border and hopefully, in the near future, with the help of this facility, we’ll fulfill this need for our border patrol and armed services.”

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