Tag Archives: University of North Dakota

Northrop Grumman Expanding Grand Forks, North Dakota Unmanned Aerial Systems Facility


Photo: Northrop Grumman


“Less than a year after Northrop Grumman opened the doors to its new unmanned aerial systems facility in North Dakota, the company will soon break ground on a new hangar to conduct testing and maintenance on its family of autonomous systems.

The company expects to employ 100 people by the end of 2017, with a mix of current Northrop employees coming from San Diego and other locations, and new hires from the North Dakota area.

The Grand Sky Park, for which Northrop Grumman is the anchor tenant, hosts several commercial tenants with ties to unmanned aerial systems, including General Atomics, Hambleton said. Northrop committed over $10 million to the initial Grand Sky project, and its initial 36,000 square-foot facility was completed in late 2016.

The company in April announced the opening of its new facility at the Grand Sky Unmanned Aerial Systems Business and Aviation Park near Grand Forks. The facility serves as a “nucleus” for research and development, pilot, operator and maintainer training, as well as operations and mission analysis and aircraft maintenance, according to Northrop.

Before the end of the summer, Northrop will start work on a new hangar that will allow it to take advantage of the proximity of Grand Forks Air Force Base’s remotely piloted aircraft squadron, David Hambleton, Grand Sky program manager and site lead, said in an interview with National Defense.

Northrop leased 10 acres of land from the Air Force to build the recently opened facility and the 35,000 square-foot hangar, which is expected to be complete by the end of 2018, he said. Flight testing and aircraft maintenance for the company’s family of autonomous systems will begin by the following year, he added.

The company’s facility in North Dakota will be an “offshoot” of its autonomous systems division in San Diego, California, he said. “In one place, we have access to both civil and restricted airspace [and] opportunities to collaborate with the universities nearby” such as the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University, he said.

The Grand Sky team will have the ability to link different capabilities “through a modeling and simulation backbone,” he added. “We’ll be able to tie together system testing in a lab with monitoring mission data as it comes in, connecting to training simulators and linking them together in a technical way to enable new ways to doing what, in the past, we’ve done independently or separately.”

The FAA-designated Northern Plains unmanned aerial systems test site is also located in Grand Forks, and the Air Force’s fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft, produced by Northrop, is based next door, he noted.

“Having all of these capabilities and infrastructure concentrated here makes Grand Sky a desirable place for us to pursue flight testing and system demonstration,” he added.

Northrop expects to perform flight testing and maintenance for the Global Hawk fleet at Grand Sky, but also intends to support other unmanned systems such as the Navy’s forthcoming MQ-4C Triton surveillance aircraft or the MQ-8 Fire Scout reconnaissance helicopter, he added.

Northrop committed over $10 million to the initial Grand Sky project, and its initial 36,000 square-foot facility was completed in late 2016, he added.

The local community and the state of North Dakota were interested in developing the unmanned aerial systems industry in the Red River Valley region, he said. A group of local actors that included the University of North Dakota and Grand Forks County developed the Red River strategic alliance agreement.

“Northrop Grumman signed on to this agreement to promote the UAS industry,” he said. “That set the stage for the goal of creating… the Grand Sky aviation business park for UAS.”




University of North Dakota Takes the Lead In Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Degree Programs


edl-03drone-t_CA2-popupBenjamin Trapnell/U.N.D. Aerospace A drone and launcher (rear) at the University of North Dakota.


“By 2025, there could be more than 100,000 jobs in the unmanned aerial systems industry, according to a 2013 economic impact report performed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. This, in addition to the manufacturing, maintenance, sales and operations of drones, is estimated to generate $82 billion by the same year.

UND has invested more than $20 million to research UAS-related topics, in addition to constructing a number of new education and training facilities, he added.

“We opened up a training center on Grand Forks Air Force Base, and we were fortunate enough to … purchase a Predator Mission Aircraft Training System,” said Al Palmer, director of the University of North Dakota Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training. “We’re the only organization outside the military that has this type of training system.”

Although a majority of the students enrolled in UND’s program will not enter into active duty military careers, a large portion of the education and training that takes place there involves practicing with Air Force aircraft and systems at the Grand Forks Base.
A spokesperson from the Air Force said in a statement that currently it is not necessary for military recruits to have unmanned aircraft experience.

“When considering cadets for [a remotely piloted aircraft] position, there are no specific degree requirements for those positions,” said Col. Eric Wydra, Air Force reserve officers training corps commander.

However, one University of North Dakota student in the ROTC program said that having a degree in UAS studies would be highly beneficial to his career in the Air Force.

“Coming in with knowledge on any level is going to help,” said Elijah Lewis, a cadet who plans to join the Air Force after graduating with a degree in unmanned aerial systems.

Having UAS experience — particularly getting the 170 flight hours needed to obtain a private pilot’s license — will give him a major advantage in jobs working in unmanned aircraft operations, he said.

These university-level UAS programs give students the experience they need to work as pilots, operators or developmental team members, Palmer said.

Professors teaching the courses began their careers by serving in the military or working in the commercial industry as pilots of manned aircraft, and they have a wealth of knowledge of unmanned systems as a result of being involved in the early stages of UAS development, he said.

Alongside regular courses, UAS students at the University of North Dakota are required to obtain a commercial pilot’s license with instrument and multi-engine ratings.

“What we do for the first two years is focus on the manned side of aviation,” Lewis said. “By the time we’re juniors, we have all of our ratings, and we are fully qualified pilots.”

After the second or third year in the program, students are able to begin operating unmanned aerial systems, he said.

Other colleges, however, have taken their programs in different directions. Schools like the University of Cincinnati have courses pertaining to unmanned systems, but they are structured as specialties under the engineering department. Though it does some work with the Air Force, the university focuses on commercial uses for unmanned aerial systems.

“We started off by doing graduate research,” but it has recently expanded to include more courses on education and training in UAS development and operations, said Kelly Cohen, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.

The university is currently working to develop an unmanned systems minor under its aerospace engineering department.

Cohen said this would be available to engineering students and to those studying subjects like computer science.

In addition to conducting research, the program has in 2014 received funding from NASA to work on disaster relief with fire fighters in West Virginia, Cohen said.

With the support of the West Virginia Division of Forestry, the University of Cincinnati collaborated with the University of Toledo to use unmanned aerial vehicles to put out a controlled fire using its Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft, according to a press release.

University officials are also working to gain FAA approval to have students’ UAS work certified at North Carolina’s Wilmington Airport, which will allow them to fly three different families of systems — including one for package-carrying, Cohen added.

This will permit them to prepare students for jobs with shipping companies like Amazon.com, which has begun head hunting for package-delivery UAS operators in preparation of the FAA’s ruling on small drone usage.

In the meantime, faculty at the university are focused on research, education and training. In the area of unmanned systems, those are the keys to successful integration of these aircraft into commercial airspace, Cohen said.

Students who have participated in UAS programs will develop an understanding of the best way to safely employ these systems, and that is where the University of Cincinnati has focused its attention, he added.

“By combining the emulation of human reasoning with the ability to adapt to different situations and perform well, we’ve come up with a decision support system that would allow these entities to, with human supervision, be able to ensure safety of operations,” he said.

Of the current UAS job market, Lewis said, “It’s expanding,” but “until the FAA comes out with more legislature on commercial unmanned aircraft … it’s kind of in a hole right now.”

Until then, Cohen said, “We are trying to have our students engage in problems that push the envelope, looking into different techniques [and] decision-making.”

There are dozens more schools across the country that have begun to establish UAS programs and courses over the last several years.

Like UND, Kansas State University Salina has a UAS degree program and is one of very limited number of schools that has authorization to fly UAS in the national airspace.

Most notably, Kansas State University Salina was chosen by the FAA to perform airworthiness certification testing for small unmanned aircraft systems — a project that is helping to determine whether the FAA’s standards need further development, said Michael Most, UAS academic program lead at the university.

Its fleet consists of more than 20 gas and electric-powered units, as well as single and multi-rotor fixed-wing aircraft.

A number of other schools have specialized programs and courses pertaining to UAS under alternate departments, according to a brief from Development Counsellors International. Some of those include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Indiana State University, North Dakota State University, Texas A&M University and University of Nevada Reno. Oklahoma State University is the first institution to have established full graduate-level degrees specific to UAS engineering.”