Report: Close calls not common, still concerning for manned and unmanned aircraft pilots

A live feed gives a unmanned aircraft pilot and camera operator information on its height, location, and speed in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, June 19, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)

A live feed gives an unmanned aircraft pilot and camera operator information on its height, location, and speed in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, June 19, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)

Operators of unmanned aircraft may not be as reckless as data released from the Federal Aviation Administration at first seemed to portray them, according to a third-party analysis released Monday.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, an advocacy organization for model aircraft pilots, analyzed reports of unmanned aircraft incidents and found a large majority of incidents reported were simply sightings by flight crews and not near collisions as reported by national media outlets.

Out of 764 reports filed between November 2014 and August 2015, only 27 were explicitly described by observers as near-midair collisions.

“Without a doubt, there are some records of ‘near misses’ that represent actual safety concerns, and more needs to be done to address those,” Dave Mathewson, executive director of AMA, said in a statement Monday. “But our analysis also found that the number of ‘near misses’ is substantially lower than the number that was previously presented.”

The reports span military and civilian use and contain sightings of other objects—including a report of a UFO—that can be confused with unmanned aircraft during flight or other aircraft flying within federal guidelines, according to the AMA.

While the AMA report shows near-collisions aren’t as widespread as previously thought, those in the unmanned aircraft systems industry acknowledge there are still irresponsible operators out there.

“The report definitely does highlight that it’s a dangerous game, ” said Matt Dunlevy, president of Grand Forks-based company SkySkopes, which uses unmanned aircraft to conduct structure inspections and take video.

Local sightings

Two of the 764 sightings reported to the FAA came from North Dakota.

In April, a pilot training at Grand Forks International Airport noticed a unmanned aircraft flying at 1,400 feet in the airport’s traffic pattern but noted no evasive action was taken.

Three months later, a pilot observed an unmanned aircraft at 2,700 feet about three miles east of Fargo’s Hector International Airport but took no evasive action.

From left, Connor Grafius, Ryan Ach and Matt Dunlevy of SkySkopes prepare for flight in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, June 19, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)

From left, Connor Grafius, Ryan Ach and Matt Dunlevy of SkySkopes prepare for flight in Grand Forks, ND on Friday, June 19, 2015. (Grand Forks Herald/ Joshua Komer)

Dunlevy points to the Grand Forks incident as an example of irresponsible flight by a unmanned aircraft pilot.

“That one was flying in the traffic pattern, which is just ludicrous,” he said.

Under current FAA guidelines, users of unmanned aircraft are prohibited from approaching manned aircraft or interfering with their flight. UAS operators also must contact the control tower of an airport if they plan to fly within five miles of it.

Recreational users of small UAS—defined as a device weighing less than 55 pounds—are told to fly no higher than 400 feet, but they can fly higher if given permission by the FAA through a certificate of authorization.

Improper use

In Minnesota, six unmanned aircraft sightings were reported by pilots from 2014 to 2015.

The presence of unmanned aircraft near wildfires prompted the state’s Department of Natural Resources to put out a warning this spring asking operators to keep their aircraft away from firefighting planes.

If a UAS is spotted in an area where these planes are flying, the DNR planes are grounded.

“It’s only going to take one of those people flying over those wildfires, taking down a helicopter that’s trying to put out a wildfire to ruin it for everyone else who’s playing nice and doing the right thing by safely integrating UAS,” Dunlevy said.

The FAA can fine careless or reckless operators up to $25,000, though the AMA found in almost 20 percent of the reports that local law enforcement wasn’t notified or it was unknown if local law enforcement was notified.

The FAA does have a “Know Before You Fly” campaign that aims to educate operators about the basics of flying unmanned aircraft legally and safely. Some of those guidelines have been authored by the AMA.

“AMA has worked closely with the FAA for many years, and we continue to consider the agency a partner in promoting model aircraft and consumer drone safety,” Mathewson said.

Sacred Heart eyes city property for potential expansion

Sacred Heart School inquired about three city-owned lots shown above.

Sacred Heart School inquired about three city-owned lots shown above in East Grand Forks.

In preparation for potential expansion down the road, Sacred Heart School approached the East Grand Forks City Council last week to ask what city’s plans are for three vacant lots near the school.

“Part of it is we’re short of parking,” Parish Administrator Len Vonasek said Tuesday. “Part of it is, the school’s intention is to grow. Growing means we need to expand somewhere, somehow.”

In addition to approaching the city, Vonasek told the council the school is talking to the private property owners about selling as well.

The school doesn’t have concrete plans as to what would be put on the lots though one possibility is a preschool building, Vonasek said.

The city lot on the corner of Fourth Street and Third Avenue Northwest and part of the adjacent lot are paved and used as parking lot.

Mayor Lynn Stauss said the parking lot was originally constructed as overflow and employee parking for Cabela’s. The third city lot is vacant and unpaved.

If a new building was constructed, Vonasek said it would ideally go up closer to the existing school building. The alley separating the group of properties from Sacred Heart’s campus would not be closed in the event of an expansion, he added.

In order to sell the lots, the city first would need to get them appraised. The estimated land market value comes to nearly $35,000 for all three lots, according to county property tax records.

There is no deadline for when the school needs an answer from the city, but Vonasek said his organization wanted to be sure the it didn’t miss an opportunity to buy them.

Making room for more in East Grand Forks

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The population of East Grand Forks could surpass 11,700 by the year 2045, and that potential growth has planning officials trying to predict where and how the city will expand.

Between this year and 2045, a preliminary analysis shows the city could develop 169 acres for residential, commercial and industrial use, including future annexations.

The development would be accommodate a forecasted population increase of about 2,275 people in that timeframe.

Produced by the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Metropolitan Planning Organization, the analysis predicts 89 acres of land will be developed for varying types of residences while the remaining 80 acres would be a mix of industrial and commercial use—46 acres and 31 acres respectively.

“There’s quite a bit of residential (growth),” MPO planner Teri Kouba said. “We’re also looking at some of the industrial and commercial use. … We’re trying to mix uses as much as we can to gain a more compact growth that’s easier for people to access.”

The population and land development data will be included in the city’s 2045 Land Use Plan, which MPO and city staff members are working to update. The plan is a document that allows the city to outline how land will be used, problems the city may face as it grows and policies to address those issues.

A public open house for the land use plan is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 16 in City Hall.

Growth trends

The predicted population bump assumes the city will grow by at least 0.9 percent each year.

The growth rate is slightly slower than the 1.2 percent rate used for calculations in the previous version of the city’s land use plan, which projected the population reaching 12,300 in 2040.

“We figured the growth rate is a little less than the last plan, but we do go through and look at the past as well as some of the indicators of what’s happening currently,” Kouba said.

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Click here for larger image.

If the growth holds as expected, the population bump will be higher than the one recorded in the four decades leading up to 2010. From 1970 to 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau shows the city picked up 1,603 residents, though the 1997 Flood was responsible for a significant population loss.

Presented to the City Council on Tuesday, a draft map of predicted growth shows much of the city’s expected residential expansion will come on its north and south ends, where dozens of vacant lots are available.

The city’s eastern edge is predicted to be predominantly slated for industrial use. Land available for commercial development is interspersed throughout the city, though several lots would be concentrated along U.S Highway 2 just east of Minn. Highway 220.

Concept areas

The update to the land use plan also is putting special focus on three areas of the city.

By creating area concept plans for these tracts of land, staff say issues regarding land use, traffic connectivity, infrastructure needs and others could be addressed before further development occurs.

Click here for full size image.

Click here for larger image.

“We want to be able to show people that this is what somebody has there, this is what could be added to it and how they would work together,” Kouba said. “It’s not a definite plan, but we want people to see the idea out there.”

The three areas are not currently in the city limits but are subjects of potential annexation.

The first is located north of 23rd Street Northwest between Highway 220 and Eighth Avenue Northwest and is projected to have residential and commercial potential.

Nestled along Highway 2 is the second area, which also would be bordered by a future continuation of Seventh Avenue Northeast and a section line road. That area could see a mix of residential, commercial and industrial development.

The last area falls on the city’s south end. Bisected by Rhinehart Drive, the land located south of 13th Street Southeast and 182nd Street Southwest would likely see residential use.

Digging in: Ground officially broken at Grand Sky

Officials pitch shovels full of gravel during a ceremonial groundbreaking for Grand Sky, the country's first business park focusing on UAS technology Thursday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Officials pitch shovels full of gravel during a ceremonial groundbreaking for Grand Sky, the country’s first business park focusing on UAS technology Thursday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

One question has driven a project that marked another milestone when state, county and local leaders picked up shovels and dug in Thursday for the official groundbreaking of Grand Sky: Why not?

Over the past three years, it was those who entertained the inquiry that made the unmanned aircraft systems business park in Grand Forks County a reality, according to its lead developer.

“It’s all about the people. It’s about the people that had the vision to embrace unmanned technology and invest in it,” said Tom Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co. “Most importantly, it’s about the people who answered the question, ‘Why not?’ that has made all the difference.

“Why not here? Why not now? Why not this idea?”

The $300 million project has seen support and investment from a number of agencies, including $13 million in state money, a majority of which has come from the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

“We are there today: An incredible moment when you realize we have reached the tipping point,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple said. “We have invested the dollars that you need to invest in order to tip this over and get the ball rolling.”

Tom Swoyer, Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., addresses a crowd gathered at the site where the new Grand Sky business park broke ground Thursday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Tom Swoyer, Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., addresses a crowd gathered at the site where the new Grand Sky business park broke ground Thursday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

More than 100 people attended the groundbreaking event, most in the audience playing a part in bringing the idea of leasing vacant Grand Forks Air Force Base land for a business park to fruition.

The deal, called an enhanced-use lease, is agreement under which the base leases land to Grand Forks County. The county then rents the land to Grand Sky Development Company for 50 years.

“The combination of the U.S. Air Force, Grand Forks County and private developer is unique,” Swoyer said. “It’s unique in its structure, it’s unique in it’s strength.”

As part of the ceremony, Swoyer presented county Commissioner Tom Falck with Grand Sky’s first rent check.

Continuing progress

Construction at the site, a 217-acre tract of land adjacent to Grand Forks Air Force Base, technically started more than a month ago with the installation of infrastructure.

While Swoyer, Dalrymple and others made their remarks, crews in payloaders and backhoes continued their work of piling dirt and removing fence. Unmanned aircraft flying overhead added to the drone of construction equipment.

One of those aircraft made its mark Wednesday afternoon as the first to take flight at the business park and fly under the call sign “Grand Sky 01.”

“I think that it’s not just a historical moment for us but for the county, the Air Force, the city and for the state of North Dakota,” said Matt Dunlevy, president of SkySkopes, the Grand Forks company piloting the aircraft.

A UAS hovers at the Grand Sky business park Thursday at the groundbreaking for the new technology park. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A DJI s1000 piloted by SkySkopes hovers at the Grand Sky business park Thursday at the groundbreaking for the new technology park. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Another SkySkopes’ flight was cut short Thursday morning by larger aircraft arriving at the base, but its test flight went well the previous night, Dunlevy said.

The company worked in tandem with North American Innovets, an aerospace consulting firm, to make arrangements to fly a DJI S100 near the base, which included receiving clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Grounding the SkySkopes aircraft were Predators, one of three types of unmanned aircraft that fly out of the base.

Also stationed at the base are Global Hawk aircraft, and the manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, will be the first tenant to break ground next month on its Grand Sky facility.

The business park also is in negotiations with General Atomics, the producer of Predator and Reaper aircraft.

Before construction begins on tenant buildings, more than $8 million of infrastructure will installed on the site. That installation is set to wrap up before the end of 2015. Swoyer told the Herald on Wednesday he expects buildings to be standing on the site by this time next year.

Groundbreaking on Grand Sky project represents years of preparation

Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Company, explains the site of the nation's first unmanned aircraft business park on Wednesday, Sept 9, 2015, at Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Tom Swoyer, president of Grand Sky Development Company, explains the site of the nation’s first unmanned aircraft business park on Wednesday, Sept 9, 2015, at Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Behind a mound of prairie dirt piled high Wednesday lies a glimpse into the future of the unmanned aircraft systems industry in Grand Forks County.

The dirt will be spread and primed for shovels wielded by people whose work in the last few years will cumulate in the official groundbreaking today for Grand Sky, the country’s first business park focusing on UAS technology.

It’s a day that Tom Swoyer Jr. has long awaited. Swoyer is president of Grand Sky Development Co., the firm heading construction of the $300 million project located adjacent to Grand Forks Air Force Base.

“Tomorrow is really a celebration about success,” Swoyer told the Herald on Wednesday. “It took a lot of years to get to the point in February where the lease was signed that allows all this to happen.”

The land for the project is rented from the base by Grand Forks County, which in turn subleases it to Grand Sky Development.

Around Swoyer, a reception area for ceremony guests was being put together, while construction crews continue their work behind the dirt pile that sits on large expanse of concrete poured 2-feet thick.

Construction is underway at the site of the nation's first unmanned aircraft business park on Wednesday, Sept 9, 2015, at Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Construction is underway at the site of the nation’s first unmanned aircraft business park on Wednesday, Sept 9, 2015, at Grand Forks Air Force Base in Grand Forks, N.D. (Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald)

Beyond the fence that encloses the pad, more crews are marking roads that will wind through the acres of vacant land to the west of the concrete pad. Trenches for utilities are expected to be dug in the next few weeks.

At the same time, the original fence will be removed and a new fence will be installed to form a security perimeter for Grand Sky, meaning the park will no longer have to rely on base personnel for security.

Ceremony guests will test the park’s independent security gate as they arrive this morning, Swoyer said.

From their seats, guests will only see a fraction of the park, which in total encompasses 217 acres and will house 1.2 million square feet of space for offices, hangars and data centers.

Swoyer refers to the open land around the concrete pad as “beachfront property” since it will be home to hangars with a direct connection from the pad to the base’s runway.

Northrop Grumman, the park’s first anchor tenant, has already staked its claim along the concrete pad’s south end. The company expects to start construction on its facility in October, Swoyer said.

So far, every company that has visited the site in person has signed a lease, he added.

“That really is the magic that happens,” Swoyer said. “People start seeing the possibilities of what could be and what you can do out here.”