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SkySkopes President and CEO Matt Dunlevy poses for a portrait while in the company's Grand Forks, N.D. headquarters on Monday, July 1, 2019. Nick Nelson / Forum News Service

Up, up and away: SkySkopes is one of America’s most innovative UAS companies – and founder, president and CEO Matt Dunlevy explains why

Tell us about SkySkopes and its history.

SkySkopes is a professional unmanned aircraft systems operator. I’m proud to say that in May, In Flight USA magazine called us “the leading UAS service provider in the industry.”

We have offices in Grand Forks, Minot and Williston, as well as in Minneapolis, Fort Worth and Denver. We have several dozen FTEs, and our mission is to provide innovative solutions to the energy sector with UAS. 

But when we started in 2014, we had a one-room office in Grand Forks and a core group of four people. Plus, we didn’t even have the permission we needed to fly commercially.

While we were waiting for that permission from the FAA, “we had a prayer and no wing,” as I’ve said before.

Did you have a background in aviation?

I've had a passion for aviation since before I can remember. I could fly a glider even before I was allowed to legally drive.

I came to the University of North Dakota, and I ended up studying history, particularly aviation history and business history. And I thought that one way to put those two interests together would be to run an unmanned aircraft business; so, I started SkySkopes.

What were your original plans for the company?

Actually, our original mission was to take aerial videos of weddings. We were looking for something that was industrial-based and repeatable. 

But our real source of strength turned out to be our location, because Grand Forks is a global leader in the UAS industry, and I truly believe that many of the best UAS pilots in the world come out of the University of North Dakota. 

And if your company can offer the exceptional skills and the safety DNA that those pilots have, you can grow and succeed as a UAS service provider.

What was the regulatory hang-up you mentioned?

Back then, we were not allowed to fly UAS for commercial purposes without what’s called a Section 333 exemption. We were the first North Dakota startup to get this blessing from the FAA. That was on the 6th of June — D-Day — of 2015.

There was some significant publicity about that at the time, because it meant the last piece of the UAS jigsaw puzzle in Grand Forks was in place. In other words, the community had a drone company that could do this for business. 

And we soon learned that while we didn’t want to focus just on cinematography, we did want to have cinematography be part of what we were doing, because drones just keep getting better at creating cinematic photos and videos. 

Right about that time, Xcel Energy was starting to advocate for unmanned aircraft around here. And we’ve been in energy ever since. 

What did getting into the energy sector mean?

Basically, we caught on to the value, the scalability and the long-term lifespan of flying UAS for utilities. That’s when we really started to see what the future could hold.  

For example, a UAS can hover close to a utility tower, and the aircraft’s sensor can inspect the welds and other elements, some of which — if not spotted and corrected — could cause the energized line to come down. That could cause blackouts and is a huge hazard.

Moreover, the current inspections are done with helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft flying low and slow.. That’s dangerous, too. 

So, drones greatly reduce this risk.

What other jobs are utilities doing with drones?

Besides using drones to inspect individual structures, utilities also are using them to inspect power-line corridors.

And the latest innovation involves stringing lines. We’ve been refining that in-house for a couple of years, and a few weeks ago, we did it in Fargo. Our drone installed lines on six Xcel Energy towers that day. The process took less than a half-hour. 

So, there are missions beyond collecting data – missions such as actual construction and repair – that unmanned aircraft can carry out at much lower risk than traditional methods can.

What other kinds of missions is SkySkopes taking on?

One of the places where SkySkopes is most active is in the oil fields out in the Bakken. Over time, the oil-and-gas industry has really seen the value of UAS, to the point that they’re now one of the two biggest reasons to be flying UAS, utilities being the other. 

And we have distinguished ourselves in both of those industries by flying the most advanced LiDar systems and optical gas imaging systems available. 

Optical gas imaging is a safe and efficient way to detect fugitive gas emissions. And LiDar is a sensor that uses lasers like a dolphin uses sound waves for echolocation. LiDar generates extremely accurate 3D models, allowing precision inspection of assets, terrain, everything.

Surveying also is extremely important, especially with pipelines. It's vital for the pipeline companies to know whether the landscape has changed – and if it has changed, to understand why. Was there a landslide? Is there a leak?

Fortunately, the oil and gas companies in North Dakota are so careful that those things don’t happen very often. Among other reasons, the companies take extra proactive steps, including working with companies such as SkySkopes to ensure that when their head hits the pillow at night, they know they're doing everything as safely as possible. 

Do you expect to move into package delivery someday?

Absolutely. Transportation is another area of the industry that’s rising in importance – and not just transportation of packages, but transportation of people. In Dubai, they’re testing a driverless taxi drone that’s said to be capable of taking two passengers on a flight of up to 30 minutes. Uber is working on something similar as well.

This year, the North Dakota Legislature committed to building out the state’s UAS radar infrastructure. What will that mean for the industry?

The Beyond Visual Line of Sight of BVLOS infrastructure that’s being built in North Dakota is putting us at the top of the heap. It’ll be an exceptional advantage for our state to have such broad areas for BVLOS operations.

For pipeline inspections, for materials transport and for countless other uses, this capability will make us the test bed for the future of aviation. So it’s extremely important, and it was a very smart move by the Legislature.

By the way, I believe the legislation passed with resounding majorities in both houses. That speaks well of not only the legislators but also their constituents, because those voters would be throwing up red flags if North Dakotans had serious concerns about unmanned aircraft.

As a history buff, you know we’ve just come through the 100th anniversary of World War I, where pilots flew biplanes like the Sopwith Camel. We’ve come a long way!

Right. And what people should realize is that right now, we’re at the dawn of a whole new age. When it comes to technology and aviation and how fast things are changing, the future is staggering.

To take just one example, I really think that the non-data-collection missions for UAS are going to take off. The line stringing is a huge example of “flight for flight’s sake”; the aircraft actually transports something from here to there – it doesn’t just collect data.

Unmanned aircraft actually are building infrastructure, in other words. That’s now the name of the game in the world of drones.

Like when a SkySkopes drone rose up in front of the crowd at the Grand Forks mayor’s State of the City address, and carried the speech to the podium, where the mayor retrieved it.

(Laughs) Right. I like to joke that the mayor didn’t deliver that speech; we delivered it. That was SkySkopes.