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Grand Forks Air Base Manages Dual UAS Operations
Post Date: Sep 30 2014

By Bill Carey
?Grand Forks U.S. Air Force Base in North Dakota recently managed the simultaneous operation of two unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in unrestricted airspace, the first such feat in the U.S., the Air Force said. Officers at the base said they are now developing procedures that would accommodate simultaneous operation of three or four UAS.

Controllers with the 319th Operations Support Squadron on August 1 managed two U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) MQ-9 Predator Bs operating in close proximity to each other after the Federal Aviation Administration authorized the base to host simultaneous UAS operations within its tower airspace. At the time, a University of North Dakota (UND) student pilot contacted the tower to conduct a practice approach, bringing a manned airplane into the traffic pattern with the unmanned Predators, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Castellanos, OSS commander. The base serves as the radar approach control for nearby Grand Forks International Airport, a public airport and home to UND’s 120-aircraft training fleet.

“The difference between manned and unmanned [aircraft] is that the tower controllers have to provide visual separation for the unmanned. You have to sequence them in,” Tech Sgt. Bianca Jakeman told reporters during a recent briefing at the air base. “We used to be able to have only one UAS in tower airspace at one time. We used not to be able to mix civil aviation and UAS.”

Grand Forks AFB is an Air Mobility Command base that lost its mission of supporting KC-135 tankers in the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process. It now hosts a detachment of
A Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 awaits permission to launch as another passes by at Grand Forks AFB. (Photo: U.S. Air Force) the 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard, which operates the MQ-1 Predator, and the 69th Reconnaissance Group, an Air Combat Command tenant unit that operates the RQ-4 Block 20 and 40 Global Hawk. It is also the UAS training base of the CBP, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security that operates the MQ-9 Predator for border surveillance. MQ-9s stationed at the air base transition to mission altitudes through a temporary flight restriction area.

“The biggest lesson we’re learning is in the development of our procedures,” Castellanos said. “We started with a blank canvas and we developed safe procedures for one [unmanned] aircraft, to make sure that we knew exactly what the aircraft was going to do at different points in its flight plan. Then we sat down and put a lot of good brains together to figure out how we can bring two aircraft into that same airspace and deconflict them if the worst-case scenario happens—the worst-case scenario being lost link, meaning they have no control and they’re flying on their scheduled flight plan until they receive that link again from the satellite.”

The base is considering developing procedures that would accommodate three or four simultaneous UAS flights, although “we’re not there at this time,” Castellanos said. 
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