UND Signs lease for UAS Center: February 13, 2011, by Tu-Uyen Tran
UND hasn’t even broken ground on a new unmanned aircraft training center at Grand Forks Air Force Base but it’s already working on plans to get new types of simulators and new training contracts with the Air Force and other federal agencies.
There’s even news of a potential breakthrough in the state’s long effort to create training airspace for unmanned aircraft systems.
Those are some of the pieces of news that came out at a base ceremony Saturday where UND and the Air Force signed a lease agreement that would allow groundbreaking on the training center to begin.
It’s another checkmark on the to-do list for making the community a hub for all things to do with unmanned aircraft, said Al Palmer, a retired brigadier general in the stat’s Air National Guard who now heads up the university’s UAS Center of Excellence.
The first year will see about 30 students, mostly undergraduates in UND’s unmanned aircraft degree program, but he said he plans to see a lot more come through. The training center was designed for growth, he said.
It should be up and running in June, he said, with a ribbon cutting scheduled to coincide with the UAS Summit in town.
Saturday’s agreement is simply for a lease of some vacant space at the base, but it’s a big step for the university as it deepens its relationship with the Air Force.
Bruce Smith, dean of UND’s School of Aerospace Sciences, even boasted that this sort of thing would make the base “BRAC-proof,” meaning that it wouldn’t see cuts in future Base Realignment and Closure rounds.
The last time that happened, in 2005, the base lost its flying tanker wing, with the last of the KC-135s departing just this past December. Replacing them this summer will be the first Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, according to wing commander Col. Don Shaffer.
Grand Forks Air Force Base is currently home to Predators flown by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and will be home to Predators flown by the Air Guard’s 119th Wing, based in Fargo.
More to Come
There’s more unmanned aircraft action to come, officials at the lease signing ceremony said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, are working together to get the Federal Aviation Administration to open select blocks of airspace that manned and unmanned aircraft can share. They’ve got an amendment in the funding bill for the agency that Hoeven said he thinks it’s got a good chance of winning congressional approval.
This bill will require the FAA to work with the military to create four pilot projects with shared airspace. The unmanned aircraft industry believes, and many officials in Grand Forks and the state agree, that allowing unmanned aircraft to share airspace with manned aircraft would allow the industry to branch out into civilian sector, with applications that can range from precision agriculture to flying cell phone towers used over major disaster areas.
The FAA fears that this would be unsafe and has been reluctant to allow sharing.
If Grand Forks Air Force Base where to get one of the four shared airspace projects, Hoeven said, he’s confident top aiviation companies will pour in for testing and to develop new technology.
In the near term, UND will be seeking more contracts for the training center at the base.
Joining the undergrad pilots, Palmer said, will be trainees from several federal agencies, which he can’t name yet because the contracts are still being worked out. He said he hopes to get a contract with the Air Force to train crews for the Predator and its larger cousin, the Reaper.
In addition, he said, UND’s talking with Northrop Grumman, the maker f the Global Hawks, to get simulators for the enormous long-range aircraft.