Part 107 Training

SkySkopes open Grand Forks training academy for drone pilots


GRAND FORKS, N.D. — SkySkopes, a national leader in unmanned aircraft system flight operations, has established a training academy at the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation.

The academy is geared toward anyone with a desire to learn more about unmanned aircraft and the overall industry, whether they are currently a hobbyist or an owner of an unmanned aircraft business.  

“We’re not here to just teach someone how to run a drone business,” SkySkopes Director of Flight Operations Mike Johnson said. “We want people to have a better understanding of the national airspace and be able to navigate it safely.”

Classes at the academy are set to start this spring with online and in-person offerings available.

While located on the UND campus, SkySkopes President and CEO Matt Dunlevy said the academy would not compete with the university’s UAS program but rather act as a complement to it. In addition to flight training, academy students would study topics focused on the engineering, data collection and analysis, sensor and business aspects of the unmanned industry.  

“It’s real world training, it’s industry training and it’s hands-on experiential learning,” Dunlevy said. “Students will find it’s extremely valuable to their career progression as far as flight hours logged and lessons learned in the real world.”

Students will have two options for their education. The first is an online course that aims to prepare them for taking a remote pilot certificate test from the Federal Aviation Administration. The certificate is necessary to operate unmanned aircraft, also called drones, for commercial purposes.

The second path is in-person flight training that is tailored to the student’s existing skill set.

“I think the academy will give students a full-rounded foundation with the classroom piece as well as flight operations,” said Rick Thomas, Interim Dean of the academy. “Some people don’t really realise that flying these small UAS can be challenging in different kinds of environments and different rule sets apply to each environment that they fly in — so the classroom is important as is the hands-on flying.”

Students graduating from the academy’s flight training program would hold certificates from SkySkopes that would show potential employers they are well versed in safety procedures and flight operations.

Gary Niemeier, a Grand Forks resident who purchased a drone for agricultural and photography purposes, is the academy’s first graduate. He contacted SkySkopes seeking flight training and completed the company’s training track, which serves as the base for academy curriculum.

As part of his experience, Niemeier received training on several aircraft and lessons on important aeronautical tasks such as reading weather maps and learning airspace classifications.

“I think they did a good job at easing me into it,” Niemeier said. “When they would put a drone up, I would just watch. I would see what they did and see what safety procedures they did. I absorbed that and when I flew, I felt pretty comfortable.”

Niemeier added he would recommend the training to anyone looking to fly drones safely and knowledgeably.  

Other businesses in the industry have founded similar educational ventures, but SkySkopes’ academy will be set apart from those enterprises by several factors.

“We’ll be going through audits, we’ll be going through accreditation processes, we’ll be partnering with associations and we’ll be collaborating with industry partners,” Dunlevy said. 

Partners include public and private entities such as the North Dakota University System and North Dakota’s Center for Distance Education.

North Dakota itself is considered a hub of unmanned aircraft activity, which makes access to high-quality instructors for the academy an easy task, Dunlevy said.

In all, about 10 to 20 students are expected to enrol in each class. More course offerings will be added as the academy grows, including advanced topics such as flying drones at night and an online course aimed at students in grades 8-12.

SkySkopes was the first North Dakota startup legally approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aircraft for business purposes and has grown to the scale of national and international operations. SkySkopes employs nearly 20 pilots and flies its large fleet of aircraft for industrial inspection, security purposes, precision agriculture, training certification, and other uses. For more information, visit

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