Lease agreement with Air Force creates North Dakota UAS R&D park

By Patrick C. Miller | February 19, 2015

Amid a backdrop of American flags and unmanned aerial systems, some of North Dakota’s top officials gathered at the Grand Forks Air Force Base Wednesday to participate in the signing of an enhanced use lease intended to spur further development of UAS technology in the region.

Speaking before a crowd of more than 100, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said, “With this enhanced use lease agreement and our designation as one of only six national test sites, we are well positioned to attract investment and jobs and lead the nation’s quest for the safe integration of these technologies into our nation’s economy.”

The agreement between the U.S. Air Force, Grand Forks County and the Grand Sky Development Co. kicks off the development of a 217-acre technology park focused on UAS research and development. Offering 1.2 million square feet of hanger, shop, lab and data center space, construction on the park is expected to begin this spring.

Tom Swoyer, Grand Sky Development president, said the lease agreement and the Federal Aviation Administration’s recently released proposed regulations for small UAS were both positive developments for Grand Sky and the state’s Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

“With the facilities we have, we’re going to be able to launch and land the biggest of the bigs,” he said. “We plan on being able to support small- and medium-sized, too, but we have the infrastructure to support Global Hawks and larger. And we also have the infrastructure to support the chase planes and whatever else we need to do to fly safely.”

Grand Sky now has a 50-year lease of Air Force property. Grand Forks County “owns” the lease on the property with the Air Force. The county awarded a sublease to Grand Sky Development Co. to develop the project. Northrop Grumman Corp. has executed a letter of intent to become the first anchor tenant at Grand Sky.

Participating in the signing ceremony were U.S. Senator John Hoeven, R-N.D.; U.S. Congressman Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.; Kathleen Furguson, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy; Col. Paul Bauman, commander of the 319th Air Base Wing; Grand Forks County Commissioner John Schmisek; and Swoyer.

“Grand Sky will be the first commercial drone airport in the U.S.,” Swoyer said. “This unprecedented public/private venture between the Air Force, county and the private sector will allow government and private firms to have a home base as they fly their drones in North Dakota and around the country.”

Hoeven recalled 2005, the year when the tanker squadron was removed from Grand Forks Air Force Base and the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRACC) was considering closing it. The state’s congressional delegation and local leaders seized on the idea of working with the Air Force and the University of North Dakota School of Aerospace Sciences to become a hub for UAS research and development.

“They didn’t know the future of UAS, but wanted to be part of creating it,” Hoeven said. “You can’t develop the technology of the future unless you’re doing new things that nobody else has done. Grand Sky is another step that this team has put together.”

Ferguson said the deal epitomized the value of underutilized property for construction upgrades that will directly impact the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Bauman, the base commander, was pleased to see the enhanced use lease become a reality.

“The resiliency and foresight of the local community to envision a future that embraces unmanned aerial systems technology and research is simply astounding,” he said.

The event was held in a hanger with displays of the UAVs flown from the base. They included the Northrup Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk and General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, as well as a General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper flown by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

Grand Sky is backed by a consortium of private equity investors looking for commercial UAS opportunities. The company is seeking tenants and owner occupants for UAS testing, evaluation, research, development and operations.

Headquartered in Grand Forks, the Northern Plains UAS Test uses several UAS test ranges and airspaces granted by the FAA through a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for UAS research and development.