The big sky country of North Dakota will soon be filled with a new flock of Predators from San Diego as La Jolla–based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems prepares to build a 16,000-square-foot "drone academy" for foreign pilots at a place called Grand Sky on the Grand Forks Air Force Base.
Congressman Kevin Cramer
"This decision is testament to the hard work and dedication of local officials to attract new high tech opportunities to the area," Republican congressman Kevin Cramer told a news conference on Monday, September 21.
"Grand Forks is fast becoming the epicenter for [unmanned aerial system] development and training in our nation."
According to its website, the Grand Sky drone complex "is wholly supported by the North Dakota Department of Commerce. By leveraging the state’s incredibly accessible and diverse airspace, along with its unique budget surplus, the [state] is able to offer qualifying tenants of Grand Sky appropriate tax credits for research expenditures, corporate income tax credit for new and expanding businesses, tax exemptions for manufacturing equipment, low interest loans and more."
North Dakota Republican senator John Hoeven told the event that "eventually, General Atomics would like to address the shortage of domestic drone pilots by training U.S. Air Force drone pilots at the academy," according to an account by UAS Magazine.
The North Dakota site is not unique in the United States for foreign Predator pilot training. Private contractors based at New Mexico's Holloman Air Force base are cleaning up on deals to train pilots for an array of international users of the drones, including France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, according to a report by AirSoc.com.
“The strategy is that we want to be aligned with the Predator,” Gene Colabatistto, group president of defense and security for military contractor CAE, recently told a media briefing at Holloman.
"We anticipated growth, established an agreement with General Atomics, and developed a product line.”
The makers of the Predator, derived from an Israeli's original design, are Linden and Neal Blue, both major contributors to U.S. politicians, though Linden is no fan of president Barack Obama.
Wrote Linden Blue in a 2011 op-ed piece critical of the Democratic president:
"Will Rogers offered excellent advice for President Obama when he said, 'there are three kinds of men: the ones who learn by reading; the few who learn by observation and the rest who have to pee on an electric fence in order to learn anything.'"
Added Blue and co-author Herbert London, President Emeritus of Hudson Institute and Professor Emeritus of New York University, "For decades the entitlement psychology has relentlessly decoupled the biblical and basic understanding that in order to eat, one must be productive. Many people, far too many people, believe the role of government is to care for them.”
A September 1 news release posted on Cramer's House website says he set up a special tour for Blue earlier this month in North Dakota.
"Cramer, working closely with the other members of the Congressional Delegation as well as state and local officials, has pursued a relationship with Blue and other UAS industry leaders to showcase Grand Forks as a location for future UAS pilot training and development."
Last month, Grand Sky and North Dakota's so called Big Drone lobby were drawn into a controversy over legalizing non-lethal weaponized drones for police operations, according to an August report by the Daily Beast.
But there appear to be few vocal critics in North Dakota of Grand Sky, for which the state lobbied prodigiously in Congress.
“We’ve said all along that Grand Forks is an ideal location to test [unmanned aerial system] integration, and now the FAA has agreed with us,” Hoeven said in a statement last December, according to Politco.com.
As for worries that military drones may collide with civilian flights, causing death in the sky and destruction below, General Atomics Predator division president Frank Pace contends that safety is a priority: “Our sense-and-avoid capability is a key part of that goal, and we continue to make ongoing progress towards this end.”
In any case, General Atomics and the La Jolla Blue brothers have been good to the North Dakota politicos. Hoeven most recently picked up $2500 from the company's political action committee on July 10.
UPDATE 9/22, 10:05 a.m. The reference to North Dakota as "big sky country" was intended as humor. As our reader points out below, the official big sky country state is Montana.