When the Cold War in the United States came to a close, many air bases across the country went through dramatic transitions. Since then, some have been decommissioned and closed, but others are now taking on a mix of military and commercial uses. Meanwhile, at North Dakota’s Grand Forks Air Force Base, members of the community developed plans to address the economic impact inherent in losing US Air Force tanker missions being flown from the base.
Then, in February 2015, Grand Forks County and Grand Sky Development Company entered into a 50-year lease with the US Air Force to develop the nation’s first business park focused on unmanned aerial systems (UASes). The development company broke ground on Grand Sky in September 2015, a 217-acre business park located in the southwest corner of Grand Forks Air Force base, with a goal of completing essential infrastructure construction as quickly as possible. The Enhanced Use Lease held between the County of Grand Forks and the US Air Force allows for private-sector investment and development on unused or underused military properties—as long as they remain compatible with the base’s mission.
What’s interesting in terms of Grand Sky’s involvement in this project is the role it plays in UASes, particularly when it comes to finding a market for integrating unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace.
“We’ve been on an ambitious schedule in terms of developing infrastructure and getting our tenants the ability to launch their aircraft,” explains Brad Gerken, Grand Sky principal and the construction lead on the project. “When we broke ground, there were no utilities close to the development site to support the park other than a sewer line. We had to bring in power, natural gas, and water lines from the existing grid. We began with only a couple of months left in the 2015 construction season, and we had the goal of completing the work as fast as possible because we had tenants that were clamoring to get access to the runway.”
Gerken notes that infrastructure construction also involved connecting a taxiway to the base’s runway and securing the civilian business park with a security perimeter to separate it from air force operations.
“Since many of our business partners are defense contractors, there was a need to make sure to provide them with controlled access and security,” Gerken says. “Our first big hurdle was putting in the initial infrastructure. Now, having the new entry-control checkpoint, which is being operated by the Grand Fork County Sheriff’s Department, helps us provide them with the necessary level of security.”
Gerken says that there is a “tremendous upside” for the private use of UASes such as drones. Projections indicate that the industry could put about $82 billion into the US economy and generate a wealth of new jobs. But, with commercial airspace tightly regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the transition won’t happen overnight.
In the midst of this, however, Grand Sky is helping to integrate unmanned aircraft into commercial airspace. Grand Sky, together with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site—one of six FAA-authorized UAS test sites—has purchased a visualization system from Harris that will allow beyond-visual-line-of-sight flights from the business park.
“We’re currently working with Harris, utilizing radar for beyond-visual-sight flights, and we’ll begin testing it in July and August of this year,” Gerken says. “This would eliminate the current need for chase planes.”
Grand Sky’s business park also has the advantage of runway access, and Gerken says the company is putting more focus on larger planes that need a runway. “The real future, in our estimation, is getting these large planes up in the air and using their tremendous range and sensor capabilities for commercial use,” he says. “Being located where we are, there is the availability of open airspace. The beyond-line-of-sight visualization system, along with permission from the FAA that the Northern Plains test site has secured for us, will allow our tenants to use the national airspace system and not be confined to restricted airspace ranges.”
Gerken explains that, traditionally, testing of unmanned aircraft in the commercial sector has been done at military facilities. Oftentimes, this testing has been considered secondary and has even been bumped by priority military-related tests. “This leads to an uncertainty of schedule for the commercial entity, which can affect their bottom line,” Gerken explains. “With us, we will be able to offer the first place in the country that can go beyond line-of-site testing in the national airspace.”
Gerken is enthusiastic about the positive public-private partnerships. He cites them as playing an essential role in growing this opportunity and granting Grand Sky real advantages in developing these options at Grand Forks. “We’ve had tremendous support from our state partners,” he says. “Right now, there are UAS pilot degree programs at the University of North Dakota, with North Dakota State executing programs involving gathering data via unmanned aircraft for agriculture.”
The global security company Northrop Grumman recently held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in April. This officially marked the start of operations for the company in its new, permanent 36,000-square-foot facility at Grand Sky. “They were the first tenant to sign a lease with us,” Gerken says. “Northrop Grumman broke ground back in the fall of 2015.”
Additionally, Grand Sky is targeting other ancillary contractors that work with main-tier tenants such as Northrop Grumman, including Raytheon, Harris, and more. Gerken says that, similar to other major construction projects, there are always challenges.
“When we were readying the site, there were headaches, of course,” he says. “You can’t sell something that’s not there. Potential tenants wanted to see infrastructure. Now that we’re two years in, we can show them all the infrastructure they need.”
Gerken indicates that over the next 10–15 years, this project has the potential to bring about 2,000–3,000 new jobs to Grand Forks. With a robust partnership and new infrastructure, it’s easy to see why Gerken and Grand Sky are excited about their future on the air base.