North Dakota unmanned aircraft industry takes off
GRAND FORKS—Grand Sky Development Co. President Tom Swoyer, Jr. said he and other leaders have essentially built a local unmanned aircraft industry from scratch.
"That was raw land with nothing else on it except an old alert pad," Swoyer said of Grand Sky, a 217-acre business park west of Grand Forks dedicated to unmanned aircraft development.
Swoyer said this in between two recent high profile visits from the secretary of Homeland Security earlier this month and another from the secretary of the U.S. Air Force Monday, Aug. 13.
As Swoyer's national tenants began to increase their local presence—Northrop Grumman Corp. is building a hangar to store Global Hawk aircrafts, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems announced last week it will lease another 14.5 acres—Swoyer and others also say they are noticing a growing workforce.
"I think Grand Sky will have hundreds more jobs in the near future," Swoyer said. "At full build-out, I can easily see a thousand people coming and going from the base every day."
The Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. reported approximately 438 jobs in unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, as of February, spanning more than 40 businesses with a local presence.
The number excludes Grand Forks Air Force Base and Northland Community and Technical College, said Wes Shover, UAS sector manager for the EDC. In 2016, a previous EDC count reported only 139 jobs, excluding University of North Dakota employees.
'Big pool' of workers
UAS jobs run the gamut when it comes to skill and industry classification, according to Praxis Strategy CEO Delore Zimmerman, who has kept a close eye on local UAS growth and development.
"So, some of the ones we look at are engineering services, other aircraft parts and auxiliary equipment manufacturing, flight training, geophysical surveying and mapping services aircraft, engine and engine parts manufacturing," Zimmerman said. "There is no specific classification for UAS."
Employers reel in scores of local and out-of-state workers, Shover and Zimmerman said.
"I think they get a pretty good mix of people in their organization from elsewhere that come here," Zimmerman said. "And they also get people that are probably working at the university. And then I think they recruit nationally, so they draw from a big pool."
Some companies say many out-of-state hires are originally from the area or graduated from a local program. Samantha Krostue, now a reliability engineer for Northrop Grumman, graduated from UND in 2008 with a degree in mechanical engineering and an aerospace concentration.
With most her family in the Grand Forks area, the Fisher, Minn., native said she always wanted to come home, but there was only one aircraft company hiring in the area.
"When I left, the UAS (industry) wasn't even a thing here," Krostue said.
She left to work for a defense contractor in Washington, D.C. Krostue was excited to return to the area in 2014, she said, when she accepted her job with Northrop Grumman. As a reliability engineer, Krostue is in charge of "sustainment," or making sure aircraft are in the best condition possible for customers.
"Come to realize my dream job opens up in my hometown? It was a no-brainer," she said.
Dave Hambleton, site lead for Northrop Grumman's space at Grand Sky, said the roughly 100 employees he works with at Grand Sky encompass several different skills and disciplines. Beyond engineering, employees can have experience in piloting, mechanical work, software design and logistics, among other things, he said.
General Atomics has just under 50 employees at Grand Sky, company Vice President of Marketing Rob Walker said. He hopes to double that number in upcoming years with the expansion the company announced earlier this month.
"We're excited to expand our footprint at Grand Sky as part of our flight test and training center in Grand Forks," General Atomics CEO Linden Blue said. "This growth—from 5.5 acres to 20 acres—will benefit our customers and strengthen our commitment to the Grand Forks community by building out our test and training capacity."
Northrop Grumman also expects to add more jobs with the hangar it's building, Hambleton said. The company likely will need more people with a mechanical background to test and maintain the hangar's aircrafts.
UND and NCTC in East Grand Forks are big workforce providers for the two UAS companies, both Hambleton and Walker said, because the schools finetune their programs to match what the industry wants.
"I meet regularly with the site manager at Grand Sky, and we have a lot of discussions about what their needs are," said Grant McGimpsey, UND vice president of research and economic development.
UND started the nation's first UAS program a little less than a decade ago, McGimpsey said. This fall, the school will open its second UAS-specific program, which will allow students to obtain a degree or certificate in unmanned aerial systems engineering.
Engineering Dean Hesham El-Rewini said it's hard to say how many students are or will enroll in the program, but he expects to see things take off soon.
"It's like our petroleum program," he said. "Petroleum started with four students in one year, and in two years our program had over 350."
This year, Krostue said she has overseen three interns at Northrop Grumman, all attending her alma mater.
"I think UND has definitely prepared them for the work they're doing here," she said.