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America's UAS Proving Ground

From Washington D.C. to the Silicon Valley, policymakers, investors, technology manufacturers and household names like UPS and are watching and waiting to see what Grand Forks does next. Companies you’ve never heard of have spent time in the region just for the chance to mingle with the main players here. Government officials at all levels had made special plane stops and speaking engagements just to say they’ve been a part of the unique activities taking place in and around the city. Some national news chains have called the region the Silidrone Valley. Without a doubt, Grand Forks has cemented its place as the leading starting point in unmanned aircraft systems testing, policymaking, industry advancements and the type of widespread collaboration responsible for moving the industry forward. The airspace is vast. The ideas are big. And, the achievements in getting things done versus talking about what could be done, are weighted towards the achievements. As the unmanned industry continues to evolve, here is what you need to know about your region’s place in the worldwide conversation on drones and why you are living in America’s UAS proving grounds.

Leadership From The Top

For the past decade, North Dakota’s Congressional delegation has played a dominant role in ensuring North Dakota’s place as a national UAS leader. Senator John Hoeven has helped educate outside industry and inspire organizations of all kinds to invest time, money and resources into UAS-related work in the state. Senator Kevin Cramer has championed the state to Washington, D.C. in a meaningful and results-driven way. The Governor’s office has provided a vision for future development including beyond visual line of sight operations, a long-time hurdle holding back the true impact of regular commercial drone flights.

Leaders from Grand Forks entities including Bruce Gjovig, Berry Wilfhart, Keith Lund, Terry Sando, Brandon Baumbach and several others, have also helped spread the message and opportunity for UAS work to those in and outside the region.

Only At Grand Sky

The Grand Sky commercial UAS business park west of Grand Forks on U.S. Highway 2 is unrivaled in the world. Others have tried to claim the same offerings as Grand Sky, but none have actually performed the type of historic flights or daily operations that Grand Sky has. The facility houses two of the largest UAS manufacturers in the world, which equates to having Ford and Chevy sharing a parking lot. The Grand Sky development team will continue to add tenants. In the meantime, the Thomas Swoyer led venture will also begin commercial drone operations. The team recently formed an agreement to own and operate a major fixed wing optionally manned aircraft, that until the agreement had never been a possibility.

Startups Turned Staples

At any given time, Grand Forks boasts several UAS startups that are pushing the boundaries of the known industry. Companies like Sky Skopes and ISight RPV Services have already graduated from startup to industry staple. Both operate across the country with multiple drone pilot teams working on everything from wind turbine inspections to methane detection services for oil and gas operators. Sky Skopes was recently named one of the best services in the world. The pipeline of new companies looking to emulate Matt Dunlevy and his team at Sky Skopes is long and promising.

Nearly Unlimited Testing

The Northern Plains UAS Test Site team based in Grand Forks, North Dakota, has been responsible for more major industry testing milestones than any other major group in the industry. The team works with the biggest names in aerospace, from NASA to publicly-traded AeroVironment to Xcel Energy. The team has helped the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration write the rules for commercial operations and shown the country several examples (through actual flights) of what commercial activity will or could look like someday.

At the University of North Dakota, the UAS team is continuing its reputation as a leading provider of pilots, personnel and experts on all things UAS-related. The program is robust as always and the graduates are in high-demand.

Connection To Defense

The presence of defense-related UAS operations in the Grand Forks region is only growing. The Grand Forks U.S. Air Force Base recently received a new designation as the epicenter for Global Hawk operations. The operations help with global reconnaissance and surveillance, all based out of the region. General Atomics is continually growing thanks to a remotely piloted aircraft training station that trains pilots from around the world how to use the General Atomics-designed drone.

Eyes On The Region

For the past 13 years, the UAS Summit in Grand Forks has attracted major leaders from government and industry to the city for a UAS-themed event. Researchers, policymakers, entrepreneurs and end-users network for hours each day, taking in presentations and sessions regarding the state of UAS at the time and where the industry can go. This year, the head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force were on the agenda, along with prominent leaders from the tech and the UAS world.

Know Your Drone

Typically classified into one of three categories, regional testing and commercial operations happen every day with each type of unmanned aircraft system.


Designed for short flights up to 45 minutes, these electric-powered systems are great for vertical lift off operations needed for photo imagery or other sensor-based work, achievable by a platform that can hold up to five pounds worth of payload (cameras, sensors, etc.) for 30 minutes. Most multirotor operations in the area are for photogrammetry, surveying and inspection. Of course, in the world of drones, there are several other uses being tested and tried on a daily basis.

Medium Altitude, Long Endurance

Built for flight durations lasting multiple hours, these systems feature a robust set of ground control communication equipment, hybrid motors capable of gas or electric power and the payload capacity to carry cameras, sensor or packages worth more than the drone themselves. In the region, testing with the units has shown how beyond visual line of sight flights can happen and how long stretches of power lines or pipelines can be monitored during a single flight.

High Altitude, Long Endurance

The highest flying, longest running drones in the sky today, these high-altitude long-endurance platforms are used by government and other major institutions. The Global Hawk is the king of all HALE platforms. Facebook and others are working to design solar-powered drones that fly in the upper atmosphere for months on end, all to supply internet to the masses. G

// To view the full story, check out the digital issue here

From Issue 5, 2019


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