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Drone flights showcase next generation of aircraft, uses at Grand Forks summit

GRAND FORKS, N.D.--Bill Fredericks and his staff drove 28 hours to Grand Forks from Virginia to watch their unmanned aircraft take flight this week. The group would have preferred to fly to North Dakota but a problem with their flight had them lo...

A Hercules unmanned aircraft prototype created by Advanced Aircraft Co. flies through the Alerus Center arena on Aug. 23, 2016. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.
A Hercules unmanned aircraft prototype created by Advanced Aircraft Co. flies through the Alerus Center arena on Aug. 23, 2016. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.

GRAND FORKS, N.D.-Bill Fredericks and his staff drove 28 hours to Grand Forks from Virginia to watch their unmanned aircraft take flight this week.

The group would have preferred to fly to North Dakota but a problem with their flight had them loading up their products and driving to the 2016 UAS Summit and Expo, which attracted more than 400 attendees looking for the latest information on unmanned aircraft systems.

Fredericks left his job as NASA aerospace engineer to start Advanced Aircraft Co. last October. A prototype of his company's Hercules model was one of four unmanned aircraft, also called drones, flown as part of the summit's flight demonstrations Tuesday in the Alerus Center.

"We now have a working prototype that we want to show people so we're here to start the business development piece," he said Wednesday. "That's the reason why we came here and obviously we're looking for customers. I think it was worth it in that respect-to have the booth and to have the demo go well. And I look forward to business opportunities coming out of this."

While Fredericks put his aircraft on display, ISight RPV Services of Grand Forks showed the crowd the capabilities of its drone cameras, specifically how infrared imaging can be useful for various tasks.

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ISight Co-Founder Adam Lingwall walked the audience through a recent project that involved using drones to find duck nests based on heat detected by a thermal camera.

Drone operators were able to direct researchers to nest locations, instead of using the traditional method of hooking a chain between two all-terrain vehicles and driving through a field until a duck flies out.

Summit attendees also got a sneak peek at the Shaper A6, a drone customized for Sharper Shape, an aerial inspection company based in Palo Alto, Calif., with a research office in Grand Forks.

The aircraft is fitted with features that will assist it in operating beyond the line of visual sight, a norm now for military aircraft but considered the next step smaller drones need to reach to become even more feasible for commercial operations.

One such feature on the Sharper A6 is the installation of four SIM cards from major cellphone service providers that allow the aircraft to link to its ground control station instead of using a radio transmitter.

"You could actually fly this from anywhere in the world," Sharper Shape Solutions Architect Chris McMurty said. "You could be in India right now and have it take off."

Both Advanced Aircraft and Sharper Shape enlisted Grand Forks company SkySkopes to fly their aircraft for hundreds of summit attendees gathered in the Alerus Center arena.

Though the company is less than 3 years old, selecting it was an easy choice for Sharper Shape CEO Tero Heinonen.

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"SkySkopes is a national leader in drone operations," he said.

Some of the aircraft showcased were so new they had yet to be exempted for commercial flight by the Federal Aviation Administration, leaving indoor flight as their only option until new federal rules allowing commercial use of drones become active Aug. 29.

SkySkopes President and CEO Matt Dunlevy said he was happy to see the company's pilots successfully operate new and experimental aircraft in front of a large audience.

"It felt great to have more than one demonstration and that they were for different missions, uses and airframes," he said.

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