GRAND FORKS-U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson joined local and state officials to celebrate something "ironic" in the words of Tom Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky, a commercial testing site for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at Grand Forks Air Force Base.
"It's a certain irony in what we're doing here today," Swoyer said, "and that irony is that we can't see a plane."
Swoyer, Wilson and others watched the first beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operation for a large unmanned aircraft Monday morning, Aug. 20, after the region's Northern Plains UAS Test Site received approval to do so from the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month.
The operation was a big milestone for the Grand Forks region, UAS businesses, the military and national security, Wilson said, because it will save UAS companies on labor costs and help advance military technology.
"You're fostering collaboration here, growing jobs here, figuring out how you can use things, like a beautiful, long runway, to get the job done for your nation."
The FAA's permission means large UAS can fly approximately 30 miles around Grand Sky without a "chase plane," or a second manned aircraft operators use to ensure the UAS is safe. Operators can now monitor large unmanned aircraft using a radar screen. Standing in front of that very device during Monday's launch, Wilson said the operation is a step toward finding a way unmanned and manned systems can co-exist and share the sky.
"We can't do that without a place to test that very thing," she said. "And that's what's happening here, in North Dakota."
Wilson also attended the 12th annual UAS summit at the Alerus Center.
Weeks ago, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., brought U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to talk about the federal government's hopes to incorporate UAS in national security efforts. Wilson shared some of the same ideas Monday, saying UAS will help bolster the nation's security. In discussing a 15- to 20-year plan for Air Force bases across the country, she added, it's "inevitable" the Air Force will pay more attention to autonomous technology like UAS.
Hoeven said the operation was a result of collaboration between several parties, including the county, Grand Forks Air Force Base, city officials, the UND aviation program and the private sector.
"This is a partnership like none other," Hoeven said. "And it's very important we continue to emphasize this incredible partnership."
Linden Blue, CEO of General Atomics, one of two UAS companies leasing space at General Atomics, said his spot at Grand Sky and the park's new BLOVS ability differs from sites across the country, which typically are managed by the military.
"You can move in for a little while, but it's kind of like camping," Blue said. "And they can tell you the grounds are closing, and you have to leave."
With Grand Sky, Blue said, he doesn't have to deal with the scheduling uncertainty of a government-owned site, meaning it's easier to plan and get things done.
After the launch, Swoyer added the park's new BVLOS ability will save businesses money on flight crews. Companies won't need to dedicate a flight crew to every mission, they can just have one crew monitoring several missions.
"The more you can reduce that cost," Swoyer said, "that's a massive labor savings."