Grand Sky UAS tech park launches first BVLOS flight

By Patrick C. Miller | August 29, 2018

A General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. Predator A on Aug. 20 became the first unmanned aircraft to fly a beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) mission from the company’s training and research center adjacent to the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Air Force Base.

A special ceremony to virtually witness the flight was held at the Grand Sky commercial UAS research and development park where General Atomics is a tenant. Two large flat-screen monitors enabled attendees to observe the Predator A’s flight path on a map while also viewing video from a camera mounted on the aircraft.

“Behind this boring screen is a very sophisticated detect-and-avoid system,” said George Kirov, vice president of commercial UAS solutions with Harris Electronic Systems. “We’ve been very lucky to have the D-ASR 11 (digital air surveillance radar)—a very powerful radar—coming from the Air Force. It creates complete visibility of everything flying—manned and unmanned—in the airspace around us here. This is what makes it possible.”

Business leaders, member of Congress, elected representatives and military officials—including U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson—were among the dignitaries attending the occasion. Wilson commended the Grand Forks community for leveraging the air force base and building on it to grow jobs, economic opportunity and development.

“This is a big deal—far beyond this community—because here we’re going to start to demonstrate and figure out how manned and unmanned systems can operate in the same airspace,” she said. “We’re going to learn more about it. We’re going to push the limits, and it makes this airspace very valuable as companies seek to develop technologies for the future of air and space.”

Linden Blue, General Atomics CEO, described how the California-based company looked all over the U.S. for a location to conduct UAS testing and to train its pilots and the pilots of NATO allies before settling on Grand Sky in northeastern North Dakota. He said the facility enables General Atomics to plan strategically for the long term.

“What we’re celebrating here with the certificate of authorization to fly without a chase (plane) out to 30 miles and up to 10,000 feet is a huge, huge step,” Blue said. “It didn’t just happen overnight or in a few weeks. It was a multi-year effort and it was a cooperative effort. When you unite new technology with the regulatory world, it is not always an easy marriage.”

Earlier in August, Grand Sky became the first U.S. location to receive regulatory permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to host commercial BVLOS test flights—enabling large UAS to fly without chase planes within a 30-nautical-mile radius in the airspace around Grand Sky. The three-year effort was led by the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Air Force, General Atomics, Harris Corp. and Grand Sky. The UAS test site can assist operators seeking certificates of authorization (COAs) to conduct BVLOS flights within the approved air space.

“This is just the beginning,” said Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Co. “Being able to fly beyond line of sight opens up a whole world of flexibility and opportunity for unmanned systems work here in North Dakota. Ultimately, we want to grow this across the entire country.”

BVLOS flights at Grand Sky are monitored through a system that combines several methods of surveillance into one stream. One-way access to the Air Force base’s radar feed is linked to locally installed ADS-B Xtend and FAA NextGen systems through the Harris RangeVue system, providing operators with real-time situational awareness of both manned and unmanned aircraft.

Nicholas Flom, Northern Plains UAS Test Site executive director, noted that it took three years of collaboration between private and public entities—as well as reaching key technical milestones—to achieve the FAA’s authorization to fly BVLOS missions from Grand Sky. He pointed out that these flights will be conducted 10 miles away from the 25th busiest airport in the nation. “This achievement in collaboration is something I’m very proud of,” he said. “We need to provide opportunities for private industry to do the testing they need to do.”

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the ability to fly BVLOS missions from Grand Sky would make it “one of the places in the nation to figure out how we’re going to have concurrent airspace use in the national airspace, flying manned and unmanned aircraft together safely with privacy,” while also addressing other UAS challenges. U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., called the event a truly historic occasion and praised local and state leaders for their perseverance in making BVLOS flights in North Dakota a reality.

“Some projects like this happen, and there’s big enthusiasm, but maintaining enthusiasm is one of the greatest challenges in achieving success in our effort,” she said. “You’ve maintained the enthusiasm. You’ve maintained the vision, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we’re here today.”