North Dakota Business Park Caters Exclusively To Drones

Spring 2016
Northrop Grumman, one of the anchor tenants at Grand Sky, is constructing a 36,000-square-foot unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) research and training facility there. Courtesy of Northrop Grumman

Grand Sky will be America’s first industrial park dedicated to unmanned aircraft systems.

WHILE MOST DEVELOPERS prefer to cast as wide a marketing net as possible to attract tenants to a new business park, Thomas Swoyer, president of the North Dakota-based Grand Sky Development Co. and Texas-based Infinity Development Partners, is finding success focusing on a single niche — unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), aka drones — to fill Grand Sky, a 217-acre, 1.2-million-square-foot business and aviation park located in rural Grand Forks County, North Dakota. When the park is fully developed, it could bring 3,000 new jobs to the area.    

The developer hopes to build out the business park in four phases. Grand Sky’s first two tenants — Falls Church, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman, the anchor tenant, and San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. — broke ground on their phase one facilities in October 2015. Both companies already supply drones to the U.S. military. Northrop Grumman, which provides the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, is building a 36,000-square-foot training facility on 10 acres and is considering adding more space in the future. General Atomics, which supplies the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper drones, is creating a 19,400-square-foot training academy on 5.5 acres at the park to train drone pilots and crew members.

Swoyer’s vision for the single-use park in this sparsely populated area of North Dakota did not come out of the blue. Grand Forks County had asked Jeff Donohoe, an economic development consultant and broker with Manchester, New Hampshire-based Jeffrey Donohoe Associates, to explore opportunities to help support the U.S. Air Force’s (USAF’s) under-used Grand Forks Air Force Base, which was already home to the Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper drones. Because the base now flies only UAS — for both the military and Customs and Border Protection — Donohoe and Swoyer proposed developing a business and aviation park focused on drones, for both military and civilian uses. After the assistant secretary of the Air Force expressed enthusiasm for the concept, Donohoe and Swoyer prepared a formal proposal, which the county approved.

The Grand Sky business park is being developed on land leased from the Air Force base. The park has access to the base’s giant 12,500-foot runway, but a separate entrance to the local highway allows it to have its own security perimeter separate from that of the Air Force base.

“The park’s new tenants are focusing on training and development activities right now because there is such a huge need for this,” explains Swoyer. “Northrop Grumman expressed interest early on and furnished us with a letter of intent even before the deal was closed, which gave us the moral courage to press on.”

A Growing Industry

Beyond training, Swoyer sees other potential uses at the park as the drone industry develops further. One big need is for data centers to process the data that drones capture during flight. According to Donohoe, some military drones can stay aloft and take pictures for more than 30 hours, then return with 35 terabytes (1,024 gigabytes) of data that needs to be stored and analyzed.

On the commercial side, Donohoe says that drones can be used for all “dull, dirty and dangerous jobs” such as inspecting wind turbine blades, pipelines and bridges. Farmers with 10,000- to 30,000-acre spreads can inspect their cropland far more efficiently with drones than by foot or truck.

Integrating drones into U.S. airspace will be costly. According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the economic impact of integrating the UAS into the nation’s airspace will total more than $82.1 billion and create 103,776 jobs by 2025.

North Dakota Leads the Way

North Dakota wants to play a starring role in that integration. At the General Atomics groundbreaking at Grand Sky in September 2015, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple said, “We are far and away No. 1 in the nation in the progress we have made toward developing UAS. We are taking a very aggressive attitude toward this, and we are moving things along faster than anyone imagined possible.” A recent New York Times article called North Dakota “a Silicon Valley for Drones.” The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has named North Dakota as one of six sites around the country for testing and research for integrating UAS into the national airspace. Other test sites are located in Alaska, Nevada, New York, Texas and Virginia.

One of the key benefits to testing drones and other aircraft in North Dakota is that the skies are relatively clear of air traffic and testing can usually be done on an “as needed basis,” according to Shawn Muehler, chief operating officer of Botlink, a small company located in Fargo, North Dakota. Botlink produces software and hardware to fly all types of drones. Muehler, a native of North Dakota and an officer in the Air Force, is typical of a growing number of entrepreneurs around the state seeking to play a major role in the drone industry as it develops. Because of budget constraints, however, Muehler has found it less expensive to locate his facilities in Fargo rather than at the Grand Sky business park, 94 miles away. Muehler’s ambition for Botlink is for it to become the “Microsoft Office” suite of drone software.

Even though Botlink is located far from the real Silicon Valley and other major tech centers, Muehler says that he has no trouble hiring drone-savvy software engineers in North Dakota. Colleges and universities in the state are quickly adding fuel to the growing drone boom. The University of North Dakota offers a bachelor’s degree in unmanned spacecraft systems operations and is developing additional degrees in the area; North Dakota State University offers degrees in nanoscale science and engineering; Northland Community & Technical College offers UAS maintenance technician programs as well as an extensive imagery analysis program; and Lake Region State College offers a degree in precision agriculture.

How are the Air Force, local and state government, higher education and entrepreneurs keeping up with what one another are doing in this field? Botlink created a “Drone Focus” meetup group that gathers once a month in Fargo to discuss drones.

“In many areas of the country, you have to be a Google or an Amazon to get in front of government officials,” Muehler says. “If you are working on drones here, all you have to do is come to Drone Focus and you can ask any state official, government agency, university or private sector company for help. It puts everyone on the same playing field. Up here, we call this North Dakota Nice.”