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2013 June 24 - 12:00 am

ND Officials Ramp Up Efforts to Land Drone Test Site

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota officials kicked off a conference on unmanned aircraft systems by touting two proposals they say would make the state a global leader in civilian drone research and training.

The first one is a technology and business park known as Grand Sky, which would be the largest industrial complex in North Dakota and provide instruction for pilots, sensor operators and maintenance workers. Backers of the plan expect to finalize a contract for the facility in the next few weeks.

The state also is bidding against 25 applicants to become one of six national unmanned aircraft test sites, a decision the Federal Aviation Administration expects to make by the end of the year. North Dakota already has committed $5 million to the venture and named a former state Air National Guard Commander as its director.

Both projects would be based in the Grand Forks area, which is home to military and border patrol drones, as well as unmanned aircraft programs at the University of North Dakota and nearby Northland Community and Technical College in Minnesota.

“Our goal is to make Grand Forks the premier northern hub for UAS development in the nation, which means in the world because the U.S. is going to continue to lead in this area,” North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven said.

Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade association for the domestic drone industry, said that the global market for drones is currently more than $11 billion. That should expand to $140 billion in the next decade, he said.

North Dakota unveiled details on Grand Sky, a $330 million investment that will cover 225 acres on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, west of the city. The facility will have 20,000-square feet of classroom and office space and 10,000-square feet of training space, along with a hangar and other aviation facilities.

The anchor tenant for the park is aerospace technology company Northrup Grumman, which builds the Global Hawk unmanned plane being flown out of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“This is an opportunity for us to have a significant footprint here,” said Tom Vice, Northrup Grumman vice president. “With the Global Hawk here, this is a major center of focus for us.”

Grand Forks County Commissioner John Schmisek said officials are wrapping up negotiations with the Air Force on the park, which would open in 2015.

“We have the opportunity to develop from the ground up a park dedicated to unmanned systems,” Schmisek said. “That makes us very flexible.”

North Dakota politicians spent much of the opening day of the two-day summit promoting the state’s interest in a test site. Hoeven said having unmanned aircraft programs at nearby colleges and air bases and without having the test site would be “kind of like having a football team without being able to practice on the football field.”

He added, “We’re pulling out all the stops.”

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the state has shown the federal government it is ready to invest in the project.

“A conference like this sometimes is just kind of a routine happening where people don’t really remember very much,” Dalrymple said. “I think this summit is going to be remembered for many years to come as the beginning of something very big.”

Said North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, “It has never been so cool to be from North Dakota.”

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