U.S. Air Force, UAS Park Sign Joint-Use Agreement for Runway

 - April 4, 2016, 10:26 AM
Flanked by North Dakota state and federal officials, Air Force undersecretary Lisa Disbrow signs joint-use accord. (Courtesy: Grand Sky)

The U.S. Air Force and Grand Forks County, N.D., signed an agreement that allows tenants of the Grand Sky unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) business park to launch and recover manned and unmanned aircraft from Grand Forks Air Force Base. The result of an 18-month approval process, the joint-use agreement positions the base to support the wider introduction of large UAS into the National Airspace System.

Grand Forks AFB has a 12,351-foot runway. The 217-acre business park, located adjacent to the base, opened in February 2015. Northrop Grumman became the park’s anchor tenant in April that year when it signed a lease to build a 36,000-sq-ft UAS research and training facility, investing $10 million. It expects to complete construction of the facility later this year. Last September, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced that it will open a remotely piloted aircraft training academy at Grand Sky. It expects to begin training U.S. and foreign flight crews this summer.

Sky Skopes, an operator of small UAS used for infrastructure inspections and aerial photography, has conducted flights at the business park since September 2015. Access to the Air Force runway will accommodate developers of larger machines.

“Large UAS offer a multitude of capabilities that can’t be matched by small UAS in terms of flight duration, range, payload capacity and payload types,” said Thomas Swoyer Jr., Grand Sky Development Co. president. The agreement signed on March 30 “allows use of the runway for training purposes, which will allow our tenants the ability to offer in-demand UAS pilot training and help supply the industry with a needed workforce.”

Grand Forks AFB lost its mission of supporting KC-135 tankers under the Department of Defense’s 2005 base realignment and closure process. It now hosts a detachment of the North Dakota Air National Guard, which operates the MQ-1 Predator, and an Air Combat Command tenant unit that operates the RQ-4 Block 20 and 40 Global Hawk. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, which operates the MQ-9 Predator B for border surveillance, uses the base as a training facility.

“This (joint-use) agreement brings us closer to tenants such as General Atomics flying unmanned aircraft alongside the Global Hawk aircraft at the base, cementing Grand Sky’s innovative public-private partnership even further,” U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) wrote in an op-ed  published in the Grand Forks Herald.

Heitkamp said she is also working in Congress to expand the base’s mission to include the Air Force’s new KC-46A refueling tanker. “Grand Forks’ expertise in remotely piloted aircraft is building a model for the Air Force base of the future: a base that’s not just an asset to the community and private-sector innovators, but also is perfect for Arctic surveillance missions and a KC-46 tanker mission down the road,” she said.

In a separate development last month, the 111th Attack Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard said eight of its pilots were selected by the Federal Aviation Administration to participate in research to develop a detect-and-avoid system display for unmanned aircraft at the agency’s William J. Hughes Technical Center near Atlantic City, N.J. The wing, based at Horsham Air National Guard Station, Pa., formerly flew the A-10 Warthog close air support jet; its 103rd attack squadron now operates the MQ-9 Reaper.