The Grand Sky Drone Park at the Grand Force Air Force Base In North Dakota was the location where the first government-approved U.S. commercial drone launched in the sky. With that, this drone also kicked off the country’s first beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) large commercial unmanned aircraft system (UAS) flight operations.
Monday, 20th August is a date that many drone fanatics should note. A date when the US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson along with several North Dakota politicians and representatives from partners such as General Atomics, Harris and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site all witnessed the launch of a commercial drone.
Grand Sky: The First Commercial UAS-Focused R&D Park That Hosts Defense Companies & Projects
The Grand Sky President, Tom Swoyer, seemed very confident that his location was chosen for the BVLOS drone launch. As he said:
“Companies that want to come and test and develop aircraft or systems or sensors or anything like that, it gives them an ability to operate in a much less expensive environment.”
Meanwhile, Grand Sky is an aircraft park which is known as the US’s first commercial UAS-focused R&D park that has a unique agreement with the Air Force – to rent out space within its perimeter and use its runway. According to Swoyer, this is the value proposition of this site and how it manages to attract defense companies.
BVLOS Drone Launches Two Years After The Certificate For BVLOS Flights Was Received
Northern Plains is the company that holds the certificate of waiver or authorization (COA) from the FAA to allow the BVLOS flights without a chase plane. Therefore, this debut marks the first time after two years that a drone like this could launch outside the Air Force’s base restricted airspace and within a 30-nm area in Grand Forks.
Instead of a chase plane, however, the COA allows the use of what Harris calls an “electronic observer” which will monitor the drone through roundant, ground-based radar solutions.
According to the VP of commercial UAS solutions at Harris Electronic Systems, George Kirov, the company has built the drone with ADS-B sensors that can easily couple with the Air Force DASR-11 radar – all in order to integrate data and allow easy tracking, monitoring the flight for cooperative and non-cooperative aircraft.
Grand Sky Park Could Soon Become A Major Testing Site For Drones In The 30-nm Range
The biggest benefit from this launch is the fact that Swoyer’s Grand Sky Park provides the ground team as well as the drone – and the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) team. Therefore, the GA-ASI can currently use the Grand Sky park to test configurations and train operators for commercial uses in the 30-nm range.
The SVP of marketing at GA-ASI apparently knows this. As he commented in an email statement:
“Ideally, we would be able to do this from all of our flight operations locations soon, as this has the potential to significantly simplify operations, increase safety and reduce cost to our customers,”
However, the SVP of marketing also knows the potential problems and drawbacks of such aircrafts.
“One of the big problems with operating a larger UAS like a Predator or a Reaper is that the aircraft can fly longer than its chase plane can,” Swoyer said. “The human factors of the chase plane tend to limit flights to four or five hours. Now we don’t have to land. Now we don’t have to refuel a chase plane. Now we don’t have to handle the biological needs of a chase plane pilot or chase plane crew.”
The Next Steps For Swoyer’s Sky Park
The next step, according to Swoyer, is to apply for an expanded range of 60-nm in Grand Forks and continue the vision of the technology that can actually improve the highway corridors so that the Air Force can transport the UAVs around.
The end game, according to Swoyer, is to create a network of such vehicles that can be tied into.