Drones have made a significant impact in fields of agriculture, logistics, science, inspections, securities, emergency services, entertainment, real estate, and so much more. While drone popularity is apparent in many regions across the United States, there are several drone hot spots. These areas with high drone use and development are the strategic locations appointed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as drone test sites. One of these 7 locations, founded in 2013, is The Northern Plains UAS Test Site in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The Northern Plains UAS Test Site has a symbiotic relationship with the University of North Dakota (UND), a designated R2 Doctoral University- High Research facility. Grand Rapids is also the home of many startup drone companies like SkySkopes. Founded in 2014 by Matt Dunlevy, SkySkopes was the first ever business in North Dakota to acquire commercial drone clearance from the FAA. A graduate of UND with a BA in History and a background in Mechanical Engineering, Matt has often returned to his alma mater as a guest teacher and lecturer.
As stated on the company website, “SkySkopes is a professional service provider with a highly qualified operations and geospatial team. We operate a wide variety of advanced sensors and aircraft for transmission and distribution line inspections, oil and gas applications, and many other innovative use cases that focus on adding value.” As drone technology advanced, the next natural progression for Matt was to start Tau Drones, a company that uses AI to analyze data collected by drone imaging systems. Recently, SkySkopes and Tau Drones partnered up with another local drone company, Mobile Recon Systems, for a project on the UND campus.
Professional photographer and former tank commander Mike Dowell founded Mobile Recon Systems out of Lexington, Kentucky in 2014. In 2020, the company relocated to Grand Forks to take advantage of the rich drone environment fostered by the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and UND. Mobile Recon System develops and manufactures heavy lift drones to meet the growing need for drones capable of supporting a payload up to 500lbs. All aspects of Mobile Recon’s systems are built in North Dakota, and as Matt described them, their drones are an “American bird (with) American muscle”.
Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, the trio set up operations outside of UND’s Museum of Art, a building that was built in 1907 as a gymnasium. The university suspected that the old building was having significant heat and energy loss issues, and needed a way to quantify their suspicions. The drone team was called in to survey the building with thermal imaging sensors and AI processing. The results of the drone project would then be used to determine exact protocols to address economic and ecological repairs to the museum.
For Matt, returning to UND for this project was what he called a feel-good moment. He had the opportunity to once again help his alma mater and support the industry he is passionate about. The results of the project will help the university, the UAS test site, and all three companies better support drone operations. Matt went on to say that “Having the North Dakota Museum of Art flown by drones that are themselves works of art, I think is truly fitting.”