Drone training facility opens in Grand Forks
One of the top U.S. drone manufacturers, General Atomics, launched its first aircraft from a new pilot training facility in Grand Forks, N.D., on Thursday.
The new facility can train as many as 100 flight crews a year, according to Dan Fritz, General Atomics' director of international programs.
The students will be mostly U.S. and foreign military flight crews. General Atomics produces the Predator unmanned aircraft widely used in military operations around the world.
"I foresee strong growth in this. The appetite for these systems is doing nothing but growing worldwide and training capacity will continue to lag in my opinion, so I think we're going to see a lot of growth," said Fritz.
General Atomics currently trains pilots at aircraft test facilities in California, but the growing demand for pilot training prompted the company to open a standalone flight training facility.
Fritz says the company chose to build in Grand Forks because of the infrastructure in place, and the strong support for drone operations.
He says the company will work with the University of North Dakota to develop training programs and collaborate with the Northern Plains national unmanned aircraft test site to research, detect and avoid technology that will allow drones to fly safely in the National Airspace.
"We're working very closely with them as they open up this airspace to be able to access the airspace and fly," said Fritz. "This is an ideal location from the standpoint of air traffic. There's not a whole lot of air traffic here."
The training center is part of the recently opened Grand Sky unmanned aircraft business park at the Grand Forks Air Force base. Grand Sky president Tom Swoyer sees Thursday's flight as a major milestone.
"We've been pounding the drum on 'we need to get more large UAS flying in North Dakota' but there really hasn't been a place for them to take off and land and so now with Grand Sky operational we have that place," he said. "We can demonstrate it. So an operational critical mass step has been reached today."
Grand Sky has two tenants — General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, both defense contractors.
Swoyer says another defense contractor, Raytheon, will visit next week. He says several drone companies from other countries have also expressed interest in opening research or production facilities in Grand Forks.