Imagine a center for all things drone, where every aspect of the unmanned aircraft industry can work in creative harmony inventing, manufacturing, supplying and accessorizing UAS. Add to that already hot spot an actual airport for the systems, with the experience and infrastructure in place to test the products and ultimately launch them for commercial purposes.

To many in the geospatial field, that probably sounds totally ideal but next to impossible with the commercialization of UAS still in the beginning stages, slowly progressing towards true organization and definition. It isn’t at all far-fetched, though. It’s coming together right now in the state of North Dakota, a state renowned for its friendly relationship with drone development.

Business Park

That place is called Grand Sky and its groundbreaking is expected to take place Sept. 10. It’s a partnership project between the U.S. Air Force, Grand Forks County, N.D., and Grand Sky Development Co., a business that specializes in developing real estate projects on military bases. The drone business park, located on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, will take up 217 total acres, 122 of them developable. Permits allow for the building of 1.2 million square feet, with an infrastructure cost of around $22 million and a total buildout estimated cost of about $300 million. The price tag for tenants will vary based on if they want office space, data centers, hangers and/or warehouses.

“Grand Sky is fully focused on and intended to continue to be fully focused on the unmanned aircraft systems industry. It is a drone business park, a drone air park, a drone airport, if you want to use those words. That’s what it is focused on,” says Thomas Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Co.

As of now they have one tenant, Northrop Grumman, already signed up. The global security company provides innovative systems, products and solutions in unmanned systems, cyber, C4ISR and logistics to customers worldwide. Grand Sky Development Co. is currently in discussions with several other potential tenants, which Swoyer can’t yet name because negotiations haven’t been finalized. He says the park is like none other he’s ever generated and shouldn’t be perceived as just a place for UAS manufacturers, because they’re very accommodating with respect to their definition of UAS involvement.

“Anything in that vertical lifecycle, that entire lifecycle of why you would use unmanned aircraft, is acceptable for us. We’re looking at aircraft companies, sensor companies, maintenance and repair operations, sensor research and development, data management. We have a lot of areas set aside for data centers and data management, because we think that fundamentally being close to where the command and control stations are for these aircrafts is important.”

Drone Airport

As far as physical size, Swoyer says there are probably a lot of business parks around the country that are much bigger, but in terms of the role of Grand Sky, the project is huge. “It’s absolutely enormous,” he says, “because we’re talking about establishing an airport and air park for unmanned aircraft. It might be easy when you think drone you think a quadcopter or an octocopter or small-winged aircraft, but we’re building the infrastructure and we’re building the capability to support the largest of the large aircraft.”

He says there’s always going to be a place for small UAS, but large unmanned systems are where the real efficiencies in the industry are going to be gained. Grand Sky is intended to handle and support that.

The unmanned aircraft of Grand Sky will need a runway to launch and land from, and convenient as can be, the Grand Forks Air Force base already has that. It has a tower, airspace control and professionals trained in managing large unmanned aircraft.

The project is music to the ears of Robert Becklund, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, one of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS test sites in the nation. It too is located in Grand Forks, and it specializes in UAS research. Becklund’s dream is to see UAS safely integrated into U.S. airspace, and he says he fully supports Grand Sky because it could very well help make his dream a reality.

“I think you can absolutely say this is a unique opportunity, and I don’t know that anywhere else in the country can do this,” Becklund says. “We have low population density, low-use skies, an Air Force base that happens to have nothing but unmanned aircraft on it in a region where you have industry and academia and the test site; all of this stuff going on in the same place. So I think, without question, you can say that Grand Sky is a unique opportunity.”

Becklund can see drone companies making a home at Grand Sky, then working with the Northern Plains Test Site and the FAA to prove the technology they’ve developed actually works. That could springboard into an FAA certification for their aircraft or technology, and blossom into a profitable business.

“What I’m saying is even though right this very second a company can’t come in here and fly in the medium altitudes without a chase airplane, because the test site’s here they can do relevant research and the money they spend is likely not wasted because it’s going to have a direct connection with the FAA,” he says. “So the timing is perfect for Grand Sky because we have the test site right now.”

Swoyer says Becklund’s vision is also his. With the help of the nearby University of North Dakota, a premier UAS education center, as well as the Northern Plains Test Site, he can see access to airspace being obtained that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Grand Sky Development Co. is working to contract an airfield operations management company to handle the specifics and logistics that go with planning how exactly the airport aspect will work. It isn’t perfect yet, but Swoyer says they’re getting there.

Model for the Future

Right now, both Swoyer and Becklund admit it’s too soon to label Grand Sky as “necessary,” but Swoyer says now is definitely the right time. “From that point of view, we’re thinking ahead and thinking these planes need a place to test — research and development — grow, expand and train, and that’s what we’re building. I think, ultimately, over the course of the next decade, there’s going to be multiple Grand Skies around the country. We’re just going to be first.”

He says it makes perfect sense to take advantage of the existing Air Force base’s infrastructure and add a first-of-its-kind commercial element. The base has most of what large unmanned aircraft flying calls for already — an apron, fueling systems and emergency response.

Past testing, once FAA regulations are settled and a comprehensive national plan for commercial drones is in place, the Grand Sky airport can turn from a place of research and testing to an actual commercial airport where large UAS can arrive at and depart from between jobs, Swoyer says. “Not only can I see it, I expect it.”

He says he hopes to see the business and aviation park fully built out within six or seven years, and flying, at least for research, happening next year. In his opinion, it’s going to take large unmanned aircraft to stay 40,000 feet and higher for long periods of time, especially for things like disaster response. “I think that being able to deploy from North Dakota, land and take off again at forward bases where we have agreements or additional presence, is really kind of the future for us.”  

How close we are to a comprehensive set of guidelines for integrating drones into national airspace is impossible to predict at this point, Becklund says. Getting there is technologically and procedurally very complicated. “Nobody wants to risk the existing safety we have on our national airspace,” but, he says, “these things are doable and there are a lot of smart people across this country working on solutions.”

In the meantime, it’s great that Grand Sky is being developed as are those regulations, because it could very well be that national airspace integration for UAS comes to fruition as the business park is finished, Becklund says. If not and it takes longer, Grand Sky is still a great investment for UAS businesses because it promises a great research environment thanks to the existing resources the base and North Dakota have to offer.

“Companies that come here can take advantage of all the experience that we already have. They’re not paving new ground coming here. They don’t have to develop new processes and procedures or infrastructure because it already exists,” he says. “So there’s probably some savings there for the industry that should be considered.”

As unmanned aircraft systems grow in popularity and availability, Grand Forks could be a model for the country as a localized hub of UAS expertise, he says, adding that such locations are probably unavoidable looking ahead.

Swoyer’s hope is that investors congregate at the business park to foster new UAS technologies, and then demonstrate them with partners also based in the state of North Dakota. He says it’s more than just a place, that there’s an element of development and ideas that goes along with it. He wants to see it become a home base for unmanned aircraft activity of all kinds.

“It’s a concept that a lot of people had trouble understanding and even more people said, ‘That’ll never work. There’s no way that can go.’ So here we are and the industry is starting to gravitate towards it; it’s making sense and people are understanding it. It’s absolutely fantastic to be a part of this rollercoaster ride.”