Minot tech company looks ahead to growth in Bakken region
MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Last year was a good one for SkySkopes in Minot, and company president Matt Dunlevy feels positive about the year ahead too.
“I think it’s going to be a great 2019,” Dunlevy said. “I have been extremely proud of the pilots that we have here, in their ability to hone in, zero in, on the missions that are going to make a company such as ours successful. So far, we have a lot to show for it.”
SkySkopes opened an office in downtown Minot in October and has been growing its services to oil field and utility companies in the Bakken region. The Grand Forks-based company announced in December 2016 that it was establishing a branch office in Minot. In April 2017, the Minot City Council approved a $375,100 forgivable MAGIC Fund loan to SkySkopes to help with purchase of equipment.
Dunlevy said SkySkopes has been fortunate with the technology selected for purchase with the MAGIC Fund loan. In an industry where technology changes constantly and there’s always newer equipment out there, SkySkopes found the equipment that has remained optimal for the work being performed.
Dunlevy told the Minot Daily News that there’s been an insatiable desire for SkySkopes’ optical gas imaging sensors, used to detect hydrocarbon leakage from tanks or pipelines that represent not only loss of product but potential for harm to humans.
Another good investment was SkySkopes’ selection of LiDAR technology, he said. LiDar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the Earth. It is useful for precise measures of manmade and natural environmental features. Dunlevy said sensors are smaller and more accurate so they are valuable to utilities in checking their infrastructure or ground changes.
The technology of the future could have a significant impact on the industry, Dunlevy said. Some things on the horizon include longer battery life, hypersonic sensors and the lift capability and autonomy of drones. Existing drones have some autonomous capabilities now in being able to detect and avoid obstacles, but future technologies could allow drones to become largely self-operating and automatic, Dunlevy said.
Keeping up with technology is challenging, although staff enjoy attending industry shows and seeing what’s new.
“That’s one of the things that keep our work exciting,” Dunlevy said. “We all love tech here.”
SkySkopes’ Minot staff consists of three mission pilots, a business developer, chief financial officer and office manager. The forgivable loan is tied to having 15 employees after three years, and the company currently is looking to hire five to eight more pilots/data processors. Pilots understand not just flying the aircraft but how the sensors perform and how to compile that data and deliver it to the end users.
“Having pilots who know every step of the cycle is extremely important,” Dunlevy said, adding that SkySkopes seeks out highly trained staff from the best universities, particularly the University of North Dakota, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and Kansas State University.
Dunlevy said it’s about credibility with end users to have high quality staff.
“When they look to pilots and operators that they trust, they look to SkySkopes because of the educational standards we hold our pilots to,” he said. “We are bringing pilots from all over the country to Minot, and from Minot, they go all over the country.”
SkySkopes does work with its clients outside North Dakota, although the Bakken energy sector is the primary focus of the Minot office.
With North Dakota’s selection last May as one of 10 pilot sites in the nation for testing unmanned aircraft beyond line of sight, Dunlevy sees industry leadership opportunities for North Dakota, and for SkySkopes.
“The lessons that they are learning are putting North Dakota UAS companies in prime positions to essentially commercialize. We are one of them. We expect a lot of the value generated from that to come and gravitate to the city of Minot. It’s a huge advantage in terms of the lessons we can learn, the learning curve we can navigate first,” Dunlevy said.
However, he added, SkySkopes’ track record shows that even line-of-sight operations can compete.
“Even if this new beyond-line-of-sight doesn’t work out, we have a business model that’s poised for success,” he said. The company’s partnerships and educational networks are strong, including its partnership with Minot Area Development Corp., he said.
Without MADC President Stephanie Hoffart pushing Minot’s MAGIC Sky Initiative to attract UAS operations, there’s a good chance SkySkopes would never have looked at Minot, Dunlevy said. Now that the company has come, he’s starting to think they couldn’t have made a better choice, he said.
“We can’t thank the community and the general culture in Minot enough. They have definitely made us feel welcome. We feel in a way, with the things that we bring and the national missions we are able to staff from here, we are in a way giving back to the people of Minot,” he said. “It means the world to us to have this location that’s functioning so well because it’s going to serve as a model for future operations.”
SkySkopes has plans to ramp up, to open more branch offices, Dunlevy said. It hopes to be a major player in the UAS industry.
“We are looking to stay on the cutting edge so we can have a hand in designing the industry,” Dunlevy said.
Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com