UND inks deal with Air Force for new UAS headquarters at Grand Forks base

The University of North Dakota and representatives from the Grand Forks Air Force Base

Air Force Col. Don Shaffer, 319th Air Refueling Wing commander, and UND President Robert Kelley sign an agreement Saturday, Feb. 12.

signed a historic lease agreement today (Saturday, Feb. 12), providing the University’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) program a new home on base for research, training and education.

A signing ceremony took place inside a massive base facility, part of which — about 5,000 square feet — will house UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education & Training. On hand for event were UND President Robert Kelley, Bruce Smith, dean of UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, Al Palmer, director of the UND UAS center, Air Force Col. Don Shaffer, 319th Air Refueling Wing commander, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple and U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., among others.

The lease agreement is the latest achievement for UND’s UAS program, placing its headquarters in the heart of the action of the burgeoning UAS industry. State and Congressional leaders who took part in today’s event hailed the growing partnership between the Air Force and UND as a way of the future for both organizations.

The Air Force is investing heavily in unmanned aircraft and related technologies. By turn, Grand Forks Air Force Base is in the process of transitioning into a major military hub for some of those aircraft: the Predator and Global Hawk classes.

At the same time, UND’s UAS program already is a designated North Dakota Center of Excellence, drawing expertise from researchers across campus, from aerospace to engineering to allied health fields to the Center for Innovation. The University also was the first in the nation to offer a four-year degree in UAS piloting.

UND’s UAS presence on base clearly demonstrates the close working relationship that has evolved between the Air Force and the University. The research and education that will take place in the UAS center, especially on behavioral and other human factors influenced by unmanned flight, is something the Air Force is extremely interested in.

“UND is proud to be able to work hand-in-hand with the U.S. Air Force, State and local leaders and our State’s Congressional delegation to make this signing a reality,” said UND President Kelley, “This building will ensure that UND’s growing UAS research, training and education endeavors continue on a rapid upward trajectory in meeting our nation’s civilian and military needs when it comes to unmanned aircraft.”

A decade ago, there were fewer than 100 unmanned aircraft in service, whereas today there are 25 times as many.  Further more, since 2001, annual UAS flight hours have increased by more than 500,000.

“Having UND located right here at the Grand Forks Air Force Base shows the kind of close-knit relationship that exists between the University and the Air Force,” said Col. Shaffer.

Sen. Hoeven, even before his days in Congress, when he was governor, was a staunch supporter of UAS endeavors in North Dakota. Under his watch, the North Dakota Department of Commerce supported UND’s UAS Center of Excellence bid with an initial $2.5 million in funding. That investment was used to leverage another $8.3 million in matching money from the private sector.

“Through our Centers of Excellence Program, we worked to make the UAS Center a global leader for UAS training and technology, and today it takes flight to an even higher level of excellence.” “Today’s ceremony marks the culmination of many months and years of hard work and the beginning of a very exciting new era for UND Aerospace, the Grand Forks Air Force Base and the entire region,” Sen. John Hoeven said.  We look forward to UND being recognized as the premier aircraft training program in the world, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”

Sen. Hoeven, working with U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., have continued to champion, in Congress, North Dakota’s unique value to the UAS industry in an effort to make the state a national hub for unmanned aircraft operations.

“Since we first helped ensure that Grand Forks Air Force Base would be central to the Air Force’s efforts in the rapidly developing field of UAS, the community has seized this opportunity to stay at the vanguard of our national security.  And the Odegard School has been a leader in that effort,” Senator Conrad said.  “This collaboration between the University and the Air Force underlines that North Dakota is at the forefront of technology in support of our national security.  I am proud to celebrate that collaboration today.”

Together, they and former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., have secured tens of millions of dollars in UAS funding for UND and North Dakota since 2005.

“North Dakota’s tradition of innovation and enterprise is evident in this partnership between the University of North Dakota and the Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Congressman Berg stated. “Remotely piloted aircraft technology has the potential to become a core part of the Air Force’s mission, and I am proud to see North Dakota at the forefront of research and training.”

As lieutenant governor and now as governor, Jack Dalrymple, also has proven to be a solid advocate for UAS technology and the potential benefits it holds for North Dakota and the nation.

“This agreement marks an exciting next step in advancing the missions of UND and the Grand Forks Air Force Base, as well as positioning North Dakota as a leader in UAS research, education and training,” said Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

Today’s lease agreement comes on the heels of another major development for UND’s UAS program.  On Jan. 28, UND signed a deal with L-3 Communications, an electronic systems and surveillance defense contractor, to install a Predator Mission Aircrew Training System (PMATS) in its new center at the base. With it, UND will be the first-ever civilian operator of the Predator control station simulators.

“It’s rewarding to see everything come together the way it has,” said Mike Nelson, UND UAS course manager and the driving force behind the program. “This has been our life for the last 16 months.”

Nelson said now that the lease is signed UND likely will “break ground” on the facility next month, making upgrades and adding state-of-the-art security and educational support equipment. He anticipates an official grand opening by early summer.

UND’s new facility and the cutting-edge equipment that will fill it, including the PMATS, only strengthens its ability to work seamlessly with the Air Force as well as the North Dakota Air Guard’s 119th Wing in Fargo and the Grand Forks-based Customs and Border Protection office, both of which fly Predators.

Palmer said that, in addition to UND students enrolled in the UAS program, there may be a time in the future when the center contracts with governmental agencies and nonmilitary UAS users to train their pilots.

“What we have put together is a unique partnership of several important stakeholders when it comes to UAS technology and we’ve been working on it for a long time,” Palmer said. “The best part about it is it’s a sunrise mission, not one where the sun is setting.”

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