CAMP RIPLEY, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota National Guard has officially launched its new $3.9 million Unmanned Aircraft Operations Facility at Camp Ripley.

Officials showed off the new 13,000-square-foot building Friday at a grand opening ceremony, giving the public a chance to see how the unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, work.

The only one like it in Minnesota, the facility will provide a place for troops and civilians to practice with the technology before using it in real-life situations.

“Getting the operators, the pilots, the intelligence gatherers along with the commanders to train — this just makes it so much more effective when you get into a theater and have to use it for real,” said Col. Scott St. Sauver, Camp Ripley’s post commander.

The facility is also capable of storing, maintaining and launching the drones.

The Guard has flown the drones since 2004 and has seven at Camp Ripley: three Shadows with 14-foot wing spans; and four smaller Ravens with 5-foot wing spans that can be carried in a backpack, quickly assembled and launched by hand.

They are used for both reconnaissance missions, such as going ahead of convoys to provide information on what’s happening in an area, as well as for surveillance, allowing operators to monitor an area from a bird’s-eye point of view.

Traditionally, such missions were performed by a pilot in a plane, which was difficult and much more costly, said Spc. Cody Anderson, who was demonstrating how operators can control the drones from a truck equipped with a satellite dish.

“We can provide 24-hour surveillance over a target, whereas a plane can’t do that,” Anderson said.

Camp Ripley officials expect the facility will be used not only by Minnesota National Guard troops, but units from around the country, Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Dampier said. It’s also expected to draw Minnesota Department of Natural Resources staff, law enforcement officers and private companies training to use the equipment, he said.

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