UAS pioneer Grand Sky makes bold move into MALE UAV service

By Luke Geiver | July 31, 2019

The team at Grand Sky Development Co. LLC, has tapped into its pioneering roots to start a new unmanned aircraft systems venture that will be the first-of-its-kind in the U.S. After standing up the nation’s first and largest UAS business park to house and accommodate daily missions, UAV maintenance, research, testing and commercial operations at the Grand Sky park outside of Grand Forks, North Dakota, the Grand Sky team has signed a unique agreement that will enable it to own, operate and utilize a medium altitude, long endurance optionally-manned aircraft.

Northrop Grumman has agreed to provide Grand Sky with two aircraft systems known as the Firebird. According to Northrop Grumman, the Firebird is designed to deliver critical ISR capability to meet customer mission needs.

Thomas Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Co., said his team saw a major need and opportunity to acquire a MALE UAV system that could provide unprecedented levels of commercial data capture service to clients across the U.S. and potentially beyond. “I think Grand Sky already has a unique place in the UAS industry,” he said. “This was the next step for our team to take.”

With a deposit agreement in place for the two Firebirds, the configuration and delivery schedule of the UAVs is still being worked out, he said. Initially, Swoyer believes his team will utilize the Firebird’s capabilities to serve the energy industry and the emergency response sector as both industries share similar sensor needs. According to Swoyer, the Firebird could run missions for oil and gas pipelines that stretch all the way from North Dakota to Louisiana in a single flight.

Swoyer said that customers from the energy and emergency response sectors have already contacted him about the capabilities and pricing options for a commercial Firebird data capture effort ran by Grand Sky. “The commercial UAS market has come so far in just the last few years. Most companies have started operations. The ecosystem has become rich, the aircraft are getting more robust, software as a service has stood up,” he said. “But it is still plagued fundamentally by the range we can fly.”

Flying further will cost more, Swoyer said, but the cost will be offset by the volume of the captured data.

The Firebird can fly for 30 hours and run multiple data capture missions at the same time. The UAV is also capable of landing in austere areas with rural airfields, Swoyer said. In the days ahead, the team will add pilots, sensor operators and ground control station operators to run the Firebird system.

For Northrop Grumman, the deal with Grand Sky for the Firebird will be one its first. However, Northrop Grumman’s team is familiar with Grand Sky and its capabilities. The company currently operates a research and testing facility out of the Grand Sky park.

Although Swoyer envisions and is planning for true BVLOS unmanned flights of the Firebird, he knows that until regulations allow it, the optionality of the Firebird to contain a pilot will help his team run missions for clients. The platform itself weighs roughly 7,500 pounds and uses a 400 horsepower Lycoming engine. The performance of the bird show it can stay on mission for more than 30 hours, carry a payload of up to 1,700 pounds, reach a 25,000 foot ceiling and operate in a BVLOS scenario. Northrop Grumman is currently operating three Firebirds.