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Taking flight: SkySkopes opens first-of-its-kind drone academy to public

By April Baumgarten on Feb 20, 2017

North Dakota's first-of-its-kind drone academy open to the public is ready to accept potential unmanned aircraft system pilots.

SkySkopes, a Grand Forks-based aerial inspection and photography company that specializes in unmanned aircraft, announced in December it would launch a training academy that would allow the public—from hobbyists to business people who want to expand their horizons — to learn the ins and outs of flying drones. The first set of online classes are set to produce some of the academy's first graduates in March, said Brandi Jewett, the company's director of marketing and media relations.

As a service company, SkySkopes got into the niche of training prospective pilots, including UND students through a for-credit program, according to the company. Several members of the public came to SkySkopes in hopes of being trained as UAS pilots, chief instructor pilot Cory Vinger said.

After that, the open-to-the-public training, dubbed SkySkopes Academy, was born.

"It's open to anyone who enjoys flying or wants to learn to fly the aircraft we have," Vinger said.

Though classes have been offered by other groups, SkySkopes' is the first academy of its kind offered in North Dakota, Jewett said.

A big lift

The industry of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, has expanded in recent years and has helped put Grand Forks on the map. Grand Sky, the first UAS business and technology park built in the U.S., has attracted drone giants General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp., as well as interest from other potential tenants. The two companies will fly large unmanned aircraft at the 217-acre business park located at Grand Forks Air Force Base.

SkySkopes also has played an instrumental part in the drone industry taking off in the Red River Valley, becoming the first North Dakota startup that was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aircraft for business purposes.

Vinger also attributed UND's aeronautics curriculum to the success the drone industry has seen in Grand Forks. The academy isn't meant to compete with UND's drone program but instead complement it, SkySkopes President and CEO Matt Dunlevy said in a news release.

"It has developed into something that I don't think anyone really saw coming to Grand Forks," Vinger said of the industry's growth. "We're trying to develop that small unmanned aircraft culture here in Grand Forks and explore what the potential is."

The drones that will be flown in the academy are considered small—similar to the ones SkySkopes uses to survey objects and land for its clients.

"Some people don't really realize that flying these small UAS can be challenging in different kinds of environments, and different rule sets apply to each environment that they fly in — so the classroom is important as is the hands-on flying," Rick Thomas, interim dean of the academy, said in a news release.

Class choices

There are two options: the online classes for this spring and the in-person flight training set to begin during the summer.

Upon completion, academy students will be given a certificate to show they have completed training.

"We're not here to just teach someone how to run a drone business," SkySkopes Director of Flight Operations Mike Johnson said in the release. "We want people to have a better understanding of the national airspace and be able to navigate it safely."

The goal is to eventually open more academies in other cities where SkySkopes operates, such as Minot, Jewett said. It's possible the classes could grow into topic-specific offerings, such as night classes and courses geared toward teenagers, according to the news release.

Those interested in signing up for the academy or finding out costs should visit or call (701) 738-4825.

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