Grand Sky is the U.S.’ first fully operational flight test center dedicated to commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The park, located on 217 acres of the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota, supports daily UAS flight operations as well as advanced research and development. Grand Sky is a magnet for leading UAS companies such as General Atomics and Northrop Grumman. Until recently, however, a significant hurdle stood in the way of future growth for Grand Sky, its customers and large UAS operators around the country.

Due to safety concerns, current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require unmanned aircraft to stay within visual sight of the remote pilot or a ground-based observer. To fly farther, chase planes can be used to escort the unmanned aircraft as they fly in civil airspace. However, chase planes can be costly, complex to manage and limit the amount of time unmanned aircraft can remain in flight. These factors compromise the missions of Grand Sky’s customers – so the UAS park set out to remove chase planes from operations.

Operating unmanned aircraft without a chase plane and beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the remote pilot requires a specific waiver from the FAA and an electronic surveillance system that allows the pilot to “see and avoid” airplanes. Obtaining the waiver is extremely difficult – less than one percent of applicants have met the safety requirements necessary for approval. Harris, however, has developed an advanced system that combines available surveillance sources to provide the real-time tracking of aircraft needed to meet these rigorous requirements and obtain the waiver. Knowing this, Grand Sky turned to Harris for the surveillance capabilities required to secure federal approval of flights without chase planes and was successful.

Using Harris’ RangeVueTM surveillance system to provide remote pilots with constant situational awareness of the surrounding airspace, Grand Sky became the first location in the U.S. to receive permission to host commercial BVLOS test flights for large unmanned aircraft without chase planes – a critical step in unlocking the benefits of UAS technology for customers and the industry.

Now, Grand Sky’s tenants can conduct BVLOS flights without the cost, complexity, and inefficiencies of chase planes.

This pivotal accomplishment would not have been possible without close collaboration between Grand Sky, Harris, the U.S. Air Force, General Atomics, Grand Forks County and the Northern Plains UAS Test Site. The public-private partnership enabled a truly integrated airspace where commercial UAS operators and technology providers can innovate and test advanced drone technologies in a real-world environment.

“The ability to fly large UAS without chase planes is crucial to the success of our customers at Grand Sky,” said Tom Swoyer, president, Grand Sky. “Currently, large UAS are generally restricted to international locations or restricted airspace on military reservations. The partnership with Harris and the Northern Plains Test Site has enabled companies at Grand Sky to leverage Harris’s outstanding technology to meet the safety case necessary for BVLOS flight. We look forward to growing this capability and extending it to new locations.”

Grand Sky has bold plans for growth and is expecting to extend its BVLOS range to include the entire state of North Dakota and all classes of aircraft flying at higher altitudes. This growth is an important step in opening the national airspace to broad commercial use of drones with transformational applications for public safety, disaster management, precision agriculture, critical infrastructure monitoring, shipping and delivery, law enforcement and more. As the lead UAS technology partner to Grand Sky, Harris remains committed to BVLOS advancements that make our customers successful both in the state of North Dakota and across the country and that allow the UAS industry to take off.