Senator working with NASA, FAA to advance UAS in North Dakota

By Patrick C. Miller | August 04, 2016

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., last week revealed that he is working with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create additional opportunities for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in North Dakota, home to one of six FAA-approved UAS test sites.

Hoeven spoke in Grand Forks, North Dakota, at two events. On July 28, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. made its first flight with a Predator launched from the company’s new UAS Flight Training Academy at the Grand Sky UAS Business and Aviation Park. On July 26, the University of North Dakota dedicated a new aerospace education facility to serve its UAS Center of Excellence.

Hoeven said he’s working with the FAA and has spoken to agency administrator Michel Huerta about obtaining a statewide certificate of authorization (COA) to allow beyond visual-line-of-sight flying for UAS above 10,000 feet through the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. The approval could come before the end of the year, according to Hoeven.

“The test site’s ability to use the advanced DASR-11 digital radar system at Grand Forks Air Force Base puts our test site in a strong position to get the authorization, which will make ours the only site in the country with a beyond-line-of-sight capability,” he said.

In addition, Hoeven said he had been in California to meet with NASA leaders at the Ames Research Center to make the case for developing the agency’s UAS traffic management (UTM) system and other programs at North Dakota’s test site. He said a NASA partnership and securing approval for beyond-line-of-sight operations would help advance the integration of UAS into the national airspace.

General Atomics showed off the capabilities of its new UAS Training Academy by launching a Predator A from the runway of the adjacent Grand Forks Air Force Base. The UAS was flown by a crew in a ground control station inside a temporary hanger.

Construction of a state-of-the-art, 16,000 square-foot Flight Operations Center began in November 2015 and is expected to conclude in spring 2017.  The academy will operate year-round, offering multiple courses and providing training for dozens of students at a time.

David Alexander, president of General Atomics aircraft systems, says a combination of factors led the company to establish the academy in North Dakota, citing the relatively uncluttered airspace and the FAA UAS test site in the state. 

“The FAA has designated this as a welcome place for UAVs,” he says. “That’s one reason why we’re here. It’s a place to have airspace that’s free to fly and local industry to support us expanding our business here. The hope is that we can fill in and train a hundred pilots a year and support all our ongoing operations.”

Tom Swoyer, Grand Sky Development Co. president, noted that, “Schedule certainty is one of the most important things for companies like General Atomics that are testing or training. They need to know that their aircraft is going to be able to take off as planned. The people at Grand Forks Air Force Base have been fabulous to work with at integrating our operations into their schedule.”

Swoyer pointed out that during the hour-long ceremony, a Customs and Border Protection Predator had landed, the General Atomics training mission launched and a Northrop Grumman Global Hawk took off on a mission for the U.S. Air Force.

“Those are three different organizations,” he said. “The ballet worked.”

Swoyer also said Raytheon System was in Grand Forks this week to meet with community leaders and explore opportunities at Grand Sky.

According to Everett Dunnick, General Atomics program manager for international systems, the company’s new academy will train air crews consisting of a pilot and sensor operator to meet General Atomics’ needs, as well as the needs of NATO allies flying the company’s remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and other countries flying export versions of the aircraft.

“One of the things we have on our plate here is to work very closely with the state of North Dakota, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the FAA, the Grand Sky business park and the Air Force base to make real progress on UAS integration in the national airspace and doing so safely, consistent with all the best practices,” Dunnick said.

The UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences on July 26 dedicated Robin Hall, a $25 million, 66,000 square foot building to support the university’s UAS Center of Excellence. The four-story building houses a UAS flight lab, a UAS simulator room, classrooms, student study areas and offices.

“The students, the faculty and staff will use this building to our utmost capability to make sure that we provide the leadership needed, not only in unmanned systems as we go forward for this country and the world, but in aviation, aerospace, space studies, earth systems science, computer science and atmospheric sciences that we have in this college,” said Paul Lindseth, dean of the aerospace school.