SkySkopes demonstrates benefits of drones in energy country

A SkySkopes drone flies over oil tanks in the Bakken using optical gas imaging equipment. Submitted Photo

Through its presence in Minot for more than a year now, SkySkopes has been demonstrating the benefit of unmanned aviation systems to the regional energy industry. The UAS company considers the current application of drones to only begin to tap the technology’s potential.

Matt Dunlevy, SkySkopes president in Grand Forks, said the state could be nearing a watershed moment with the North Dakota Department of Transportation’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation for permission to regulate commercial drones flown beyond visual line of sight. Currently, drones must be flown within visual line of sight. In May, the U.S. DOT is federally mandated to have 10 memorandums for innovation zones signed by state, local or tribal public entities, giving them authority to certify certain groups to fly drones beyond line of sight.

Dunlevy said SkySkopes is prepared to apply for flight certification if North Dakota is one of the 10 innovation zones.

“This is fantastic that we might be able to start flying beyond visual line of sight this year in Minot. That would be monumental for oil and gas companies,” he said. “We are gathering fantastic data that people love with these sensors. Beyond visual line of sight will augment the data we can collect.”

Dunlevy said oil and gas companies are aware of the benefits of drone technology, but they realize the most benefit will come when drones can be flown without constant human visual tracking.

“That’s when it will be time to really hit the ground running,” he said.

Federal regulations require pipelines to be inspected every two to three weeks. Being able to inspect with an unmanned aircraft, without a need for someone to visually spot it, would be a tremendous cost and time savings. It would enable drones to go more places, enhancing the level of information that can be gathered, Dunlevy said.

Drones are used to survey land before pads are built and provide unique angles for assessing assets once built. The ability to take optical gas imagery is one of the advantages. A drone can carry equipment to test for escape of product from tanks or any leakage that could pose an environmental hazard.

“It’s also just good to show them that we can give real-time situational awareness to someone who is a decision-maker back in the office and livestream these things,” Dunlevy said. “If there’s a danger, people who are at the central decision-making are going to want to know immediately. That’s something we are able to do. We save them time. We save them liability. We save them money.”

Drones also increase safety by flying equipment into areas that would be dangerous for employees because of heights or an energized environment, such as with electrical facilities.

Recently, Dunlevy met with Microsoft executives in Redmond, Washington, regarding UAS opportunities. Engaging Microsoft in the UAS technology would be a huge boost to the industry because of the company’s expertise, Dunlevy said.

“We are literally on the cusp of an explosion of UAS value,” he said of the positive developments occurring that could advance the industry. The development of the instructional training and education opportunities will be another key to UAS growth, he said.

Dunlevy participated in a STEM presentation for educators and career advisers in Minot earlier this month. He also is involved on the Minot High School Aviation Advisory Committee, which offers guidance in the school’s aviation programs. His connections extend to the University of North Dakota Research Institute for Autonomous Systems and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Minot Area Development Corp. and SkySkopes will be bringing the Magic City Sky Initiative to the Xponential conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an event expected to bring 8,500 industry leaders and forward-thinking users from the defense and commercial sectors to learn the latest on policy, business use cases and technology applications. The conference is April 30 to May 3 in Denver.

“We have really been honing our approach in how we are going to bring more UAS industry players, UAS leaders, to the city of Minot,” Dunlevy said. “This is the conference to go to, to do that.”

Dunlevy said the job outlook is good for data analysts, computer programmers, maintenance workers, pilots, business experts, cybersecurity specialists, educators and knowledgeable attorneys who will be needed to support the UAS industry.

The potential exists for many of those jobs to come to Minot, he said. Although Minot has been SkySkopes’ base for use of drones in the energy industry, Dunlevy noted drones have numerous applications, whether it’s firefighting, cinematology, package delivery, construction, private security or other uses.

“There’s an extremely bright future for UAS in Minot,” he said.

So far, SkySkopes’ operations in Minot are on track, Dunlevy said. The company has been operating out of Minot Area Development Corp.’s headquarters but has land under consideration for an office location.

If the authority to fly beyond visual line of sight becomes a reality in North Dakota this year, SkySkopes could see its forecasted schedule of operations jump ahead by as much as two years.

“That’s going to open a lot of eyes,” Dunlevy said of focus that will be drawn to drones if they can be flown more remotely. “But the question is if it’s going to open the wallets. I expect that it will. Will it open enough? Yes, if we have the correct technology.”

The key is for drones to deliver on what promoters say are the possibilities.

“I am confident we are going to be able to,” Dunlevy said.