General Atomics CEO outlines plans for new ND facility

By Patrick C. Miller | August 30, 2017

General Atomics CEO Linden Blue last week covered what has already been accomplished at the company’s new Aeronautical Flight Test and Training Center in northeastern North Dakota and what’s planned for the future.

Blue was at the grand opening of the $30 million, 24,000-square-foot facility which is an anchor tenant at the Grand Sky Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Business and Aviation Park next to the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Also present to dedicate the center were U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and other state and local dignitaries.

“We’ve been working on all things UAS for over 15 years, and when you see something like this, you realize it’s worth every bit of work we did and something we really need to stick with,” Hoeven said. “This is really about creating the jobs of the future and competing with anyone, anytime, anywhere. It’s about innovation and creativity. It’s about the very best companies globally in aerospace.”

The General Atomics facility has a staff of 40 and houses two ground control stations for an MQ-1 Predator and two MQ-9 Reapers (one Block 1 and one Block 5), along with earth station and satellite services for beyond-line-of-sight flying. Blue noted that since the company broke ground a year ago, 55 General Atomics air crews have been trained at the center.

“We can do more than that,” he added. “We’ve also done development up here already. We have tested and evaluated a weapons simulator that allows pilots to train as though they were launching weapons on the aircraft, but you don’t have to go through all the hassle of actually doing that.”

Blue said the Department of Homeland Security—through its Customs and Border Protection facility at the Grand Forks Air Force Base—has been flying a Reaper equipped with a sense-and-avoid system built by General Atomics.  

“We are going to continue refining that system so that eventually these aircraft will fly in the national airspace—even below the IFR-only level of 18,000 feet—without requiring special permission or chase aircraft,” Blue said. “That’s a few years out, but it will all be done from here.”

In addition, he said the company’s Grand Sky facility would be used to test a variety of sensor pods, as well as a high-frequency satellite capability which allows UAS fly using higher data rates and with lower susceptibility to jamming.

“We will be testing more detect-and-avoid systems,” Blue said. “This is one of the first places that’s going to have a validated ground-based sense-and-avoid system.”

Hoeven pointed out that it makes sense to also use the General Atomics center to train crews for the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, a goal he’s pursuing in Washington, D.C.  

“We would obviously like to increase our number of trainees,” Blue said. “The Royal Air Force is probably the next group that you’re going to see come through here next year. They are probably our biggest single non-U.S. customer. The other NATO air forces also should be customers here because the capacity in the world is such that they’re going to need it. The Air Guard is in that same boat.”

Everett Dunnick, General Atomics North Dakota program manager, said many non-NATO customers are in the market for an export version of the company’s UAS that it hopes to produce. He said air crews for those aircraft could also be trained at the Grand Sky center.

“We intend to stay in business and grow the business here in North Dakota,” Dunnick said. “We’ve got a fabulous facility to support that now. I look forward to years to come of fruitful, productive UAS operations here in Grand Forks.”