General Atomics to build drone pilot training academy in N.D.

By Ann Bailey | September 21, 2015

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems will build a 16,000 square feet drone pilot training academy in the Grand Sky unmanned aerial systems (UAS) park just west of Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. said

Hoeven made the official announcement about the San Diego-based General Atomics training academy at the Ninth Annual UAS Summit and Expo in Grand Forks, N.D., on Monday. General Atomics signed a 10-year-lease, Hoeven said, and plans to train 60 international flight crews annually. The flight crews will be from countries across the globe including the Netherlands, France and Italy, who come to the academy to fly Predator and Reaper drones, Hoeven said.

Eventually, General Atomics would like to address the shortage of domestic drone pilots by training U.S. Air Force drone pilots at the academy, he noted.

Military use of unmanned aerial vehicles is just one opportunity for the unmanned UAS industry, said N.D. Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley. Other drone applications include emergency response, precision agriculture and commerce.

North Dakota trade trips overseas have highlighted the international interest in UAS, Wrigley said.

“Everywhere we go across the globe we are asked about unmanned aerial systems.”

North Dakota already is a leader in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in agriculture, Hoeven said.

“We’ve been leaders in precision agriculture for a long time.”

The state is uniquely positioned to be on the cutting edge of the drone industry, Wrigley said, noting that the University of North Dakota boasts one of the top aerospace programs in the United States.

“We have a history of expertise in aviation in North Dakota and we will leverage that.”

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, speaking via a video screen at the UAS conference, congratulated the UAS industry leaders on their collaboration with local communities, educational institutions and the military.

“In North Dakota, we have seen what a friendly business climate and people across North Dakota,” can do to advance the UAS industry, Heitkamp said

Though, the UAS industry is strong, more needs to be done to ensure it continues to flourish, Hoeven said.

That includes:

-          Accelerate airspace integration. The training wheels need to be taken off of UAS test sites, Hoeven said. The FAA has taken steps in that direction, but the agency needs to implement UAS regulations.

-          Advance critical UAS technology. Better technology is needed to advance airspace integration.

“We need to capitalize on the synergies between commercial and military unmanned aerial systems use,” Hoeven said.

Though the industry is still young, unmanned aerial systems industry leaders have already accomplished a great deal, Wrigley said.

“You are pioneers and you should be proud of that. In North Dakota, the sky is not even close to the limit.”