Grand Forks’ Isight Drone Services works globally, but keeps the jobs at home – Grand Forks Herald

For Tommy Kenville, the period of growth for his Isight Drone Services business is the culmination of years of effort to cultivate what is known as the state’s unmanned aerial systems ecosystem.

The best part of this growth is being able to provide jobs for local youth. Kenville has just hired three more graduates from UND – most of Isight’s staff are graduates from UND – and he’s likely to hire more, and potentially from other local colleges, like the Northland Community and Technical College.

“For me, it’s so much fun babysitting young kids in North Dakota for tech jobs,” Kenville said. “Each of these people would have left if we hadn’t created this drone industry here. “

Every new hire at Isight means someone else who can hit the road, get the job done, and help grow the business. And these local graduates don’t have much to do to get a well-paying tech job. Of Isight’s 23 employees, 20 are UND graduates. Kenville, the majority owner of the company, is also a former student of the UND, as is Nate Leben, a minority owner.

The company’s employees have been busy. Kenville said Isight saw a growth rate of 47% in 2021 from the previous year, attracting $ 3.2 million. Drone pilots travel by truck – Kenville said he just bought the 15th work truck – and travel across the United States on jobs for clients.

These pilots worked in 40 different states and when Kenville spoke with the Herald on Thursday, Jan.6, he said he had teams in Texas and Iowa.

“These kids can now travel all over the United States, work and earn a good living,” he said.

Sometimes these pilots travel the world. The coronavirus pandemic has dried up international work for now, but Kenville said he has a client who is waiting to work with these pilots when conditions improve. Before the pandemic, Isight employees worked in Australia, Japan, Canada and some European countries.

The company provides a number of services including aerial inspection of wind turbines, solar panels, pipelines and more. Last year, the company’s drone pilots inspected 18,000 wind turbine blades across the country and, in the state, traveled more than 4,000 miles in McKenzie County, where the city of Watford and where Isight has an office, checking the county’s gravel roads. Isight also has offices in Grand Forks, Fargo and the Twin Cities.

Drones offer many possibilities for businesses in various fields, and Isight is working with its customers to find solutions that save time and money. In precision farming jobs, pilots look for certain noxious weeds or check for damage after a storm or survey drainage tile. The company’s drone pilots even worked on a duck egg counting project for the Delta Waterfowl conservation group.

“Our camera sensor can pick up heat from ducks,” Kenville said. “We found more than them manually. “

Kenville, who is called Tommy because of the number of “Toms” in his family – his father is called Tom and his stepfather was the late Tom Clifford, president of the UND – has a long history in aviation. He spent 15 years at UND Aerospace and was Vice President of Development at the Aerospace Foundation. He has an entrepreneurial spirit, and that’s why then-governor Senator John Hoeven called Kenville in 2008 to see if he would support the state’s fledgling drone industry. Kenville said Hoeven drones would be a game-changer.

“(Hoeven) said, ‘If we pursue it as a state, would you help us? And I said ‘of course’, ”Kenville said. “And that’s kind of how it all started.”

Kenville worked with Hoeven, an industry champion in North Dakota since he was a child, to create an advocacy group to speak with a unified voice for UAS in the state. This group has spoken to the Federal Aviation Administration about the desire for drones in North Dakota. Later, and after legislative work when Hoeven became a senator, the state was chosen to be the first of six test sites for drone flight and research, and resulted in the creation of the test site of the Northern Plains UAS.

Hoeven said: “He was a big part of the team that helped make it happen. there is no doubt. “

Since the creation of NPUASTS, the ecosystem has grown considerably. Its partners include UND, Grand Forks Air Force Base, Northland Community and Technical College, and private companies, among others. It is this ecosystem that, according to Kenville, has allowed a business like his to thrive and hire local graduates who are trained in all things drones.

“These are essential elements for a small business like mine to be successful,” said Kenville.

At least in North Dakota, the future of drones in many capacities will depend on flying beyond visual line of sight. Kenville said his company is preparing to test in this area. Vantis, the state’s radar network for testing and possibly facilitating BVLOS, is the first of its kind in the country.

Kenville said he envisions more drone companies emerging because of the grid, and said he could see his pilots inspecting utilities across the state from Grand Forks, saving money. time and money and creating more local jobs.

“It’s just like I said, the exciting part for me is keeping the young talent in North Dakota,” he said.

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