UAS park could spark industry growth in Grand Forks regionGrand Forks leaders could know by August whether a proposed unmanned aircraft systems campus will fly at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
By: Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, The Jamestown Sun
Grand Forks leaders could know by August whether a proposed unmanned aircraft systems campus will fly at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
That’s when Grand Forks County and the regional Base Realignment Impact Committee should know whether the Defense Department will negotiate a needed land lease.
“The goal on this is to get this lease process moving forward enough so that the Air Force feels comfortable enough to say, ‘OK, now let’s negotiate terms of what that lease might be,’” said county Commissioner John Schmisek, who chairs BRIC.
BRIC and state officials already are talking with several major UAS companies about leasing property at the proposed UAS campus.
That campus, plus North Dakota’s potential designation as one of six test sites for integrating UAS with manned aircraft in the national airspace, would be the launch pad for what Grand Forks leaders say could be a multi-million-dollar commercial UAS industry in the region.
The Federal Aviation Administration expects to announce the test sites later this year. Congress requires the agency to begin UAS integration by 2015.
On front end
“We, as a region, are at the front end of a whole new worldwide industry cluster, once the airspace issue gets resolved,” said Klaus Thiessen, executive director of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., a BRIC member. “With all the things happening here, we’re ahead of the curve. That’s exciting. But the key is that it’s going to take some time.”
“We’re looking at probably a 10- to 20-year development that would be unique in the country and unique for North Dakota,” Schmisek said.
When the last base realignment was announced in 2005, Grand Forks Air Force Base lost its air refueling mission. The Defense Department’s Office of Economic Adjustment offered the county financial assistance to help diversify the local economy. Local officials, in turn, formed BRIC, which used some of the money to conduct UAS studies.
One of the studies indicates that by 2025, three of 80 aircraft in the skies will be unmanned, and by 2050, that ratio will climb to three of eight aircraft, a growth rate of about 17 percent per decade.
“Through those studies, it became abundantly clear that there were UAS opportunities here, not only in economic diversification, but it’s also in base enhancement. So they’re really tied together,” Thiessen said.
BRIC is not playing an active role in the campaign to bring the proposed KC-46A aerial refueling mission to the Grand Forks base. However, it is providing assistance to the base, as well as concentrating on supplemental areas, such as the proposed UAS campus.
“We’re vetting all of this through the Air Force, so we don’t hinder any opportunities for the tankers,” Thiessen said. “There isn’t a decision we make that we don’t go to the Air Force and say, ‘Are you OK with this?’ That’s driving us in all of this.”