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Group flies multiple unmanned aircraft at once for first time at Grand Sky

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Three unmanned aircraft buzzed overhead for less than 15 minutes Thursday, but the short flight marked a milestone for their operators and nearby spectators.

The demonstration was the first time multiple unmanned aircraft have taken flight simultaneously at Grand Sky, a business park under construction on the southwest portion of Grand Forks Air Force Base.

"This is kind of our process of baby-stepping up to full flight operations," said Tom Swoyer Jr., president of Grand Sky Development Co., the firm developing the park.

Once buildings are completed and tenants move in, Swoyer said the plan is to have procedures in place at the park to allow the simultaneous flight of multiple small unmanned aircraft--typically defined as aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds.

The aircraft flown Thursday were piloted by SkySkopes, a Grand Forks startup company that uses the devices for inspections and photography work.

The company has flown dozens of times over the Grand Sky's construction site to take footage of progress but has only used one aircraft at a time. Thursday's flight paves the way for operations involving more than one aircraft.

"Everything that came together today was really a proof of concept that we're hoping to help Grand Sky with moving forward to when there will be a larger scale of small UAS operations here," SkySkopes President Matt Dunlevy said.

The flight also is a step toward having multiple aircraft in the air that would be operated by different companie sat the same time.

"We could have a lot flying simultaneously," Swoyer said. "We don't know what a lot is yet, so we thought we'd try three."

The effort takes significant coordination. During a flight, each aircraft would have its own crew, including a pilot and safety officer. The small aircraft are treated like manned planes in that the base's air traffic control tower must be alerted when it takes off and lands.

Between crew members and spectators, nearly a dozen watched the three aircraft maneuver around one another without incident Thursday.

Dunlevy said the flight was a learning experience, as the flight crews needed to figure out how to set up the aircraft in relation to one another, determine where pilots and observers should stand, find the most efficient way to communicate among crews and perform other procedures necessary for a multi-aircraft operation.

Thursday's flight comes on another milestone for the park--the one-year anniversary of its lease signing.

The park is a joint venture between the base, Grand Forks County and Grand Sky Development. The Air Force rents 217 acres to the county, which then subleases it to Grand Sky Development.

With the mild spring weather, construction at the site is picking back up, with at least three buildings on track to be completed this year.

Story written by Brandi Jewett and published by Forum Communications

- See more at: http://www.prairiebizmag.com/event/article/id/26703/group/Technology/#st...

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