November 9, 2015

General Atomics breaks ground $2.5 million drone academy Grand Forks

By Brandi Jewett, Grand Forks Herald

Grand Forks Air Force Base Commander Col. Rodney Lewis welcomed the latest in a series of new neighbors at Grand Sky business park Monday.

Unmanned aircraft systems manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. broke ground on its training academy slated to be built at the business park, which also is under construction on land leased from the base.

"You know that you're open for business when you look at the progress that has happened here over the past few months," Lewis told a crowd gathered for the event. "And then you know you're really open for business when you actually have an address. You are at 5 Grand Sky Boulevard, Grand Forks, N.D., zip code 58205.

"We are open for business."

It's from that address that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. CEO Linden Blue predicts great things will come.

"If we can continue on with the path now laid out … then I think in this little corner of Grand Forks, we can change the world," he said.

When completed, the $2.5 million, 19,400 square-foot academy will train around 100 pilots and crew members a year from the United States and abroad. Blue noted potential foreign customers include the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain.

Blue has hopes that the U.S. Air Force also will turn to the company to fill its training gap between the number of available instructors and needed pilots.

Two of GA-ASI's products are the Predator and Reaper series of unmanned aircraft. Both aircraft models are stationed at the base and used by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and North Dakota Air National Guard. Predators could be seen landing several times throughout the ceremony.

"At this point, I'm really happy that we chose North Dakota," Blue said. "I think we have a significant advantage in terms of the aviation focus, particularly an aviation-focused workforce."

The company has signed a 10-year lease for the property, which the U.S. Air Force rents to Grand Forks County and in turn subleases to Grand Sky Development Co.

GA-ASI is the second tenant to break ground at Grand Sky. Northrop Grumman, which produces the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft series, held its ceremony there last month.

"General Atomics, while the second groundbreaking, may be the first operational on site," said Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Co. ""They'll start flying early next year, maybe as early as March, so we've got to hustle getting their facility done."

Swoyer said construction also will continue to install other remaining utilities and infrastructure before winter arrives. As part of the construction this summer, Grand Sky gained a secure entrance, meaning visitors no longer have to go through base security to access the site.

The project reconnecting the business park's taxiway to the base's runway is ahead of schedule, Swoyer said.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who attended both tenant groundbreakings and a third ceremony for the park itself, commended those involved on the progress made at the park.

"We are far and away, No. 1 in the nation in the progress we have made toward developing UAS," he said. "And I think that gap is going to continue to widen because we are taking a very aggressive attitude toward this, and we are moving things along faster than anybody imagined possible."

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