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Drone Pilot Training Center Expanding From California Desert To North Dakota

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) - A major U.S. defense contractor that is opening an unmanned aircraft training academy in North Dakota may start with a temporary structure because of the growing demand for pilots and other crew members, the head of a drone business park says.

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. held its groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month at Grand Sky, the nation's first unmanned aircraft technology park located on the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The California company, which manufactures the Predator and Reaper drones, plans a 19,400-square-foot hangar to house aircraft that will be used to train up to 100 students a year.

Thomas Swoyer Jr., Grand Sky Development Corp. president, said construction can't go fast enough.

"Speed is of the essence to get their building up," Swoyer said. "Right now we are evaluating with General Atomics about a temporary structure we could get into place before a permanent building is completed."

Swoyer said the need to train drone pilots was a driving force behind Grand Sky, the $300 million public-private venture that has 217 acres of land space and wide-open airspace.

Officials at General Atomics declined to comment to The Associated Press, but company CEO Linden Blue said during groundbreaking that his group is running out of training space in the high desert of California. Blue said the Grand Forks location gives the company a "very significant advantage" because of the strong aviation workforce and academic programs at the University of North Dakota and other area colleges.

Construction on the permanent training building is expected to be complete by next August. It's not clear how soon a temporary structure could be up and running.


Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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