Drone Industry Takes Off in North Dakota

What’s likely to be the nation’s first drone airport-business park complex will fully open its runways to private-sector traffic later this Spring, when unmanned flights raise off the tarmacs of this former Air Force training field in Grand Forks, ND.

That benchmark moment at the Grand Sky facility will advance North Dakota’s long-standing efforts to become a hub in the emerging Unmanned Aircraft Systems industry. The state has sunk over $34 million into programs, projects and infrastructure designed to lure drone aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers to America’s fourth least-populated state.

“North Dakota offers unique opportunities for innovation.”

The complex, planned and partly-constructed by the Grand Sky Development Company, occupies a 1.2 million acre site leased from the Air Force. Last September, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and General Atomic’s Aeronautical Systems both broke ground on facilities slated to open later this year. An adjacent 220-acre build-to-suit site is currently seeking tenants, many of whom will be arriving by air and taxiing directly to their doors.

North Dakota’s Commerce Department has provided over $34 million in funds over the past several years to attract drone-related ventures, helping spur the emergence of an unmanned-aircraft cluster. Between 15 and 20 companies have taken root in the state, according to Brian Opp, who manages the state’s aerospace development program.

Source: Grand Sky/Icon Architectural Group
Architect’s rendering of Grand Sky. Source: Grand Sky/Icon Architectural Group

In addition to the facilities available at Grand Sky, Opp cites the location appeal of such resources as the University of North Dakota’s aeronautics school, a state-run testing program, and the state’s own largesse—nearly $3 million in research grants distributed so far. State officials also tout the region’s wide-open terrain which allows drones to fly unencumbered at altitudes above the height ceiling imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“North Dakota offers unique opportunities for innovation,” said Janis Pamiljans, senior vice president and general manager at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “Northrop Grumman is proud to partner in an area with a strong military presence, advanced university progams and residents open to cutting-edge professions. There is so much room for growth in North Dakota.”


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