Photo Courtesy Icon Architectural Group
Construction of a Grand Forks, N.D.-based UAS airport and testing facility, called Grand Sky Development Park, includes hangers for drones of all sizes, from fixed wing to octocopters.

Construction of site improvements, including security fencing, access roads and culverts for a $25-million, 217-acre unmanned aerial-systems park, began in Grand Forks, N.D., in July. But even before the first phase broke ground, the developer started pushing drone-related research by partnering with the developers of an airtraffic-control system for drones.

The facility, called Grand Sky Development Park, is America’s first UAS aviation park, says Thomas Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., Grand Forks. “The vision outgrew itself,” he says. The facility is being developed on an out-of-use portion of the Grand Forks Air Force Base. It already offers 1.2 million sq ft of hanger, office, shop, laboratory and data-center space on a build-to-suit basis.

Initially, Swoyer was hired to find a way for the local community to capitalize on the property, which the county picked up on a 50-year lease, but he soon realized its potential as an unmanned-aircraft aviation center when companies in the UAS industry began knocking on his door. His company leased the property from the county and began the project.

The first big customer, Northrop Grumman, Falls Church, Va., starts construction on its buildings this fall. Another large company is scheduled to follow shortly after, says Swoyer, but he declined to name it because the deal isn’t complete. By purchasing the drone air-traffic-control system, Grand Sky is positioning itself to synchronize safe drone operations for multiple companies, he says.

The park selected VirtualAirBoss by SmartC2 Inc., Grand Forks, for the flight management system. SmartC2 is involved in a multi-phase project with the National Atmospheric and Space Administration to develop an unmanned-aircraft traffic-control operation.

“We chose VirtualAirBoss because we want to have the safety and audit capability it offers,” says Swoyer.

According to a NASA release, the first phase of its control system, Unmanned Traffic Management 1, will create, analyze and manage flight trajectories and constraints to enable operation of an interactive system. NASA says it will be working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration in the development of the first four phases of UTM. The second phase is aimed at increasing the density of UAS in the air and contingency management. The third phase will manage separation and branch into traffic control of ground-based unmanned vehicles. The final phase will scale up all phases to manage large-scale contingencies.

“We offer cradle-to-the-grave UAS management. That means managing takeoff and landing, coordinating with the local Air Force base, managing emergency scenarios and scheduling,” says Stuart Rudolph, president and CEO of SmartC2.

When asked about the current Wild West conditions of drone usage in the U.S.—with “hobbyist” drones popping up unpredictably and everywhere—Rudolph says, “Whether you’re a photographer or an engineer shooting a bridge, you’re in the aviation business when you’re in the air. As soon as one engineering firm goes down because something went wrong, insurance companies will jump on this.”

Recent near misses of passenger planes with UAS in North Carolina, Poland and at London’s Heathrow airport, as well as incidents in which private drones interfered with aerial missions fighting wildfires in California, make Rudolph’s warning all too serious. Software such as VirtualAirBoss will add to the value of Grand Sky, Swoyer predicts,adding that he thinks the park will become the epicenter of U.S. drone research and progress.

The city of Grand Forks put up the initial funding for the park and has awarded construction bids of more than $4 million so far, not counting the work being done by Northrop Grumman and other customers.