The General Atomics billboard catches my eye as I'm cruising down US Route 2. "Welcome," it says, "to Global Hawk country."
Suddenly, the last two days made a lot more sense: The small city of Grand Forks, North Dakota is undeniably the drone capital of the world.
It's not just the fact that the Grand Forks Air Force Base has more Global Hawk pilots and actual Global Hawk drones (which are unarmed, and the most commonly flown the military has) than any other military base the United States has.
Grand Forks, with a population of roughly 55,000, has seemingly impossibly been a hotbed of drone activity for the last few years. (Full disclosure: The North Dakota Chamber of Commerce flew me out to see some of the state's drone capabilities, which is telling in and of itself.)
if we want to find out what it means for people to have a bunch of unmanned aircraft fly over their community, we can do that here
What I found was a bizarre place where the country's drone debate is already over, and the drones have won.
It's not just the Air Force. Consider for a moment:
- Customs and Border Patrol flies its Predator drones out of Grand Forks.
- The first American man to be arrested with the help of one of those said Predator Drones happened back in 2011.
- The University of North Dakota began offering a drone pilot major back in 2009, the first four year university in the country to do so.
- The Grand Forks Police Department was one of the first in the country to use drones, it does so openly, and recently became the first in the nation to arrest suspects with the help of one.
- The first US commercial drone test site was opened with the help of the University of North Dakota.
- The University of North Dakota is the only civilian institution to own a Predator flying simulator and training system.
All of this in a city whose entire population could easily fit in your average football stadium, where, incidentally, you'd be able to take a photo of all of them—with a drone.
People are more sophisticated about drones here
While much of the country eyes drones with a cautious (at best) eye, Grand Forks has somehow moved past that debate and is extremely gung ho about the whole thing.
At drone and technology conferences like those thrown by AUVSI (the largest drone trade group) and even smaller meetups of drone hobbyist groups in Washington, DC, those in the industry are often very guarded about the capabilities of drones and what they can be used for—especially when it involves surveillance.
In North Dakota, not so much.
"If we want to do complicated things, if we want to find out what it means for people to have a bunch of unmanned aircraft fly over their community, we can do that here," Bob Becklund, director of North Dakota's drone test site, told me. "We can try it out publicly in a way that you can't in the rest of the nation."
To be clear: There are currently no official plans to turn Grand Forks into the country's first constantly aerially-surveilled city. Becklund was just saying that if he wanted to turn it into that, he probably could without there being much backlash.
The Grand Forks Airport has a Global Hawk model in it. Image: Author
The data suggests he's right. Thomasine Heitkamp, an ethics researcher at the University of North Dakota, recently ran a survey of people living in Grand Forks and nearby counties. She found that nearly three-fourths of people suggested that drones present no or very few privacy concerns. Nationally, roughly two-thirds of people are concerned about the privacy implications of drones.
"People are more sophisticated about [drones] here. There were a few people who didn't know much about them, but most people did," Heitkamp told me. "I think people don't assume a lot of privacy. I have a cell phone, people know where I am. People are more concerned about the safety of them than the privacy."
Part of that may be because North Dakota's drone boom didn't happen overnight. The University of North Dakota has been doing research on drones for roughly a decade now, the Air Force has been flying drones out of there for a long time as well. Many of its residents are in the military or know people who are. Drones simply aren't a foreign concept. The city's economy is booming, and drones are leading the way.
That's why it wasn't surprising, when I was flying home, to find that there's a scale model of the Global Hawk hanging in the Grand Forks airport.