GRAND FORKS — North Dakota’s unmanned aerial industry has grown exponentially over the past decade, and much of that growth is centered in and around Grand Forks.
So it makes sense that a new statewide panel would be formed by a Grand Forks entity.
The Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce announced on Tuesday the formation of the North Dakota UAS Leadership Committee, a group that will meet regularly to discuss unmanned aerial systems issues and opportunities.
The group solicits members across the state, but is most notably forming in Grand Forks, which has been at the forefront of North Dakota’s burgeoning UAS industry. Over the past decade, a number of UAS companies have opened or moved to Grand Forks, including national aerospace leaders like Northrop Grumman and General Atomics. Grand Sky – a UAS-specific business park west of Grand Forks – bills itself as “the first UAS business and commercial aviation park in the United States and the nation’s first UAS test site” .
Meanwhile, Grand Forks Air Force Base has shifted its mission to remote-controlled aircraft.
Grand Forks chamber board chairman Tommy Kenville, owner of Grand Forks-based ISight Drone Services, said the idea draws a bit of inspiration from the chamber’s Herald business advisory board, a group that meets quarterly to discuss business happenings in and around Grand Forks.
“There are so many different moving parts in the state UAS industry. We have to help each other,” Kenville told the Herald. “We now have companies of different sizes, but before it was small companies like mine, with around 30 employees. Now there are 200 (employees) at Northrop Grumman, 150 at General Atomics and Grand Sky is building more and more. Williston has a program, Minot has operations, and we have operations in Fargo.
But, says Kenville, “we’re the hub, aren’t we? We have 90% of today’s drone action happening here. »
The group’s first co-chairs are both based in Grand Forks: Tom Swoyer of Grand Sky and Michael Fridolfs of Northrop Grumman.
“We’re trying to put a stake in the ground here, that we’re the epicenter of everything UAS,” said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. “UAS are such an important part of our future, and we are the leader in this area.”
Wilfahrt expects that in addition to sharing ideas and discussing the industry in general, committee members will “examine issues and opportunities that arise in the Legislature that we need to be aware of.” .
Swoyer, in a statement sent by the House, said “the committee will monitor and coordinate action on various threats and opportunities in preparation for and during the future legislative session. We will continue after 2023.”
Kenville said he would view the committee as a success “by the industry maintaining the growth model.”
“If you count government and non-government businesses, I bet we’re pushing 1,500 to 2,000 drone workers right now in North Dakota,” he said. “It’s something, and in a short time. We must continue to increase.
Since this is a statewide committee, not everyone will be a member of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce. Wilfahrt said committee members will, however, need to be members of the chamber of commerce in their respective communities.