Grand Forks startup one of three ND companies exploring commercial use of unmanned aircraft


Brandi Jewett

With eight spinning propellers and a hum rivaling a hive of bees, a small unmanned aircraft piloted by Connor Grafius shot off the ground and hovered overhead Friday afternoon near the UND Center For Innovation.

A nearby video monitor displays Grafius and his business partners from a camera mounted on the airframe. The group on the screen makes up a portion of SkySkopes, an unmanned aircraft systems startup company less than a year old located in the Center for Innovation.

The company recently learned it’s the first in Grand Forks to receive a commercial flight exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to fly unmanned aircrafts, also known as drones, while following specific requirements laid out by the agency.

Commercial use of UAS is banned by the FAA, so the exemptions are a means for companies to explore potential uses of unmanned aircrafts legally.

“This is a very drone-centric city, and we think that we have something we can add in a positive light,” President and CEO Matt Dunlevy said. “Sometimes drones and UAS are looked upon negatively. Sometimes the word ‘drone’ could be considered pejorative or derogatory. We want to show … that drones are being used to make the world a better place.”

Known as a Section 333 exemption, the document allows SkySkopes to fly up to 200 feet in the air, among other flight requirements.

Diverse group

With an exemption in hand, the group can pursue its main mission of providing infrastructure inspection services.

Potential infrastructure to be inspected includes cellphone towers, wind turbines and other above-ground structures.

UAS industry members say this area of use will prevent deaths and keep humans out of dangerous situations resulting from the need to inspect stories-tall structures.

“If you can reduce the liability of a having a person climb a cell tower by having a drone go up to do the same work, the value … just shoots through the roof,” Dunlevy said.

The company also is exploring aerial photography and data collection services, which would send up an aircraft to take pictures or gather data using sensors for clients.

SkySkopes has started small with a few aircraft in its arsenal.

The DJI Spreading Wings S1000 aircraft flown Friday is one of two aircraft models allowed by the company’s exemption to be piloted by Grafius, who has a private pilot licence and is a sophomore in UND’s unmanned aircraft systems program.

Vice President Jack Wilcox and Special Projects Manager Ryan Ach, who say they both had interest in aviation prior to joining SkySkopes, said they got involved after taking one of Dunlevy’s entrepreneurship classes at UND.

Though members of the SkySkope staff come from varying backgrounds ranging from history to information technology to entrepreneurship, they have assembled to seize an opportunity in a rapidly expanding industry, Dunlevy said.

Approved for flight

SkySkopes is the third North Dakota company to receive a Section 333 exemption.

The two other companies are Shutter Pilots of Bismarck and Falkirk Mining Co. of Falkirk, N.D. Still, more out-of-state companies have exemptions listing North Dakota as place they may potentially fly.

In total, more than 600 exemptions have been granted by the FAA nationwide for commercial unmanned aircraft use.

Even with the exemption, SkySkopes can’t launch unmanned aircraft at its leisure. Before each flight, it must submit a notice to airmen, as stipulated in its exemption.

“It tells manned aircraft that even though the UAS isn’t going to be flying at the same altitude as manned aircraft, to keep an eye out or to make sure they know there is a UAS operating in this area,” Grafius said.

In this case, the notice goes to Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace company that Dunlevy said acts as a middleman for the startup and notifies the FAA of SkySkopes’ flights.

Approval for a flight under 200 feet can take 72 hours but those over that altitude but less than 400 feet can take up to 15 days to receive approval.

Before taking to the skies, Dunlevy said the group practiced indoors with smaller quadcopters before acquiring the S1000, which weighs up to 20 pounds when fully loaded with a camera.

While the number of aircraft and their potential uses is expected to grow as the UAS industry gains a stronger foothold in the United States, much of that future is still up in the air.

“We don’t know what we don’t know, but we have cause to be optimistic about our future,” Dunlevy said of SkySkopes.