North Dakota at center of unmanned aircraft industry

Unmanned aircraft
Leaps in unmanned aircraft technology have military authorities clamoring to use drones for everything from coastal patrols and border surveillance to tracking natural disasters.
AP Photo/NASA, Jim Ross

Hundreds of people are in Grand Forks this week talking about the future of unmanned aircraft. The rapidly growing industry could mean big economic development opportunities for the region.

Aerospace giant Northrup Grumman opens a new office in Grand Forks Friday, and local officials say that could be just the start of a new economic boom.

Unmanned aircraft systems are becoming big business. It's estimated the Department of Defense will spend as much as $80 billion on unmanned aircraft in the next 10 years.

Phyllis Johnson, vice president for research and development at the University of North Dakota, says Grand Forks is at the epicenter of a growth industry.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"I think this region is positioned as well as anybody, if not better than most," said Johnson. "We have all the pieces right here to really grow this industry and take advantage of everything that's out there."

The University of North Dakota is already training pilots to fly unmanned aircraft. Customs and Border Protection pilots are also trained in Grand Forks. Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls is gearing up to train the mechanics who will maintain the aircraft.

The Air Force will base its Global Hawk, one of the largest unmanned aircraft in Grand Forks later this year.

As a result of all this activity, some of the leading aerospace companies are opening offices in Grand Forks.

Eric Icard, senior business development officer for the Grand Forks Regional Economic Development Corp., says things are happening so fast it's hard to keep up.

"It's really tough to get out there and visualize what's happening, because this industry is growing so fast and is changing so fast, it seems we have to adapt every day," said Icard. "Which is what makes it exciting, and is certainly what makes it exciting for the region."

Aircraft manufacturer Northrop Grumman will have a new office in Grand Forks. The company expects to have about 100 employees there within the next two years. They will help support the Global Hawk aircraft at the Grand Forks Air Force base.

But a new Northrup Grumman facility will also bring in other companies. Ed Walby, director of business development for Global Hawk at Northrup Grumman, says there are also more than 300 subcontractors who support the Global Hawk program.

Walby says he expects much more growth in the future.

"NATO is looking to buy the same system. NATO air ground surveillance -- they too will buy the same system, and most likely come here to Grand Forks to see how the U.S. Air Force does it," said Walby. "So now you have an international flavor to Grand Forks with the Global Hawk system."

But experts say the economic opportunities aren't limited to big defense contractors. Small companies are trying to develop the latest widget for the rapidly expanding high tech industry.

Air Force technical advisor Greg Pierce says high tech entrepreneurs need to get involved. He says for example, unmanned aircraft in war zones collect massive amounts of raw video. They need systems to automate analysis of that video.

"Systems that can make a determination as to whether an individual is holding on to a broom or holding on to an AK-47 would be really, really helpful," said Pierce. "Because we're not into shooting folks with brooms, but the other folks we're more than into shooting. So that's a critical area that needs to be solved."

Some regional entrepreneurs are already getting a foot in the door of the unmanned aircraft industry. Grand Forks economic development official Eric Icard says software will be critical for the future.

"For example, there's a little company in Grand Forks called Bold Methods. Seven employees. They're already developing the training software that the Air Force is using for the Predator and Reaper platforms. So it's kind of a homegrown effort at the same time," he said.

Icard says right now much of the economic development around unmanned aircraft is happening in North Dakota. But he says he'd like to join forces with Minnesota to build a regional economy around the industry.

"We see this as an opportunity, and I would certainly welcome the partnership with entities across the border," said Icard. "I'd like to engage their delegation as well, to see how we can make not only North Dakota, but the region and Minnesota grow as well."

Icard says several major unmanned aircraft system companies are planning expansions in the Grand Forks area in the next year.