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Firms make national rounds to conduct training as drone industry grows

Aerial photographer Sam Girardi (right) assembles equipment used in conjunction with a mapping system carried by a drone Sept. 21 on the UND campus while drone pilot Cory Vinger observes. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.1 / 5
Eric Agnello (left) with Phoenix Aerial Systems reviews data transmitted from a drone in flight during a demonstration Wednesday at UND while UND student Elena Parrello and pilot Andrew Schill observe. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.2 / 5
Phoenix Aerial Systems representatives Sam Girardi (left) and Eric Agnello check the connection between equipment before a drone flight Sept. 21 at the UND campus. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.3 / 5
Aerial photographer Sam Girardi (right) operates a drone outfitted with a mapping system called LiDAR, which uses lasers to create 3-D maps of environments, while another drone pilot, Cory Vinger, watches Sept. 21. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.4 / 5
A drone carrying a LiDAR mapping system hovers near the UND Tech Accelerator after mapping the building as part of a demonstration Sept. 21. Photo by Brandi Jewett/Grand Forks Herald.5 / 5

New federal rules opened the skies last month to many interested in flying drones for business purposes, but they also provided a boon to those carving out niches in the industry.

With a barrier to entry now lower, those looking to get a piece of the drone pie are plentiful, but some may need to set themselves apart as professionals as competition heats up.

One means of doing so is bringing in firms that conduct training on flight operations, aircraft maintenance, equipment, navigating the regulatory environment and other topics.

Visiting Grand Forks for such reasons earlier this month were Katrina Jensen and Grady Boyce with SkyGen Aviation.

Their firm offers consulting and training services to clients, which span from large companies looking to integrate unmanned aircraft into their operations to small companies looking to get a larger foothold in the ever-expanding industry.

"A lot of companies, even though they have an aviation department, they're either so task-saturated or they aren't up to speed on what's going on in the UAV industry," said Jensen, SkyGen's CEO. "There's where they come to see us — as the knowledge experts that can come in and help them build processes and procedures."

Eric Agnello and Sam Girardi also made a stop in the city, representing Phoenix Aerial Systems of Los Angeles, to familiarize members of a local drone firm with their company's products and demonstrate those products' capabilities.

"It's a good way for us to get our stuff out there," said Agnello, the company's manager of inside sales and marketing, adding they've traveled as far away as Australia to demonstrate products.

During their North Dakota visit, both companies met with SkySkopes, a drone firm based in Grand Forks.

Phoenix Aerial conducted a demonstration for the business and a group of UND students using its integrated LiDAR system, a device that projects lasers onto the surrounding environment to create a 3-D map. The system can be attached to a drone and flown over areas to produce maps much faster than traditional ground survey crews.

"Since UAV LiDAR technology is sort of still fledging, a lot of companies want to get into this end of things, but the initial investment is large, especially compared to some other applications," Agnello said, with some systems coming with a price tag comparable to a small house.

He and Girardi flew a drone outfitted with LiDAR over UND's Tech Accelerator on Sept. 21 and showed the results just minutes later of a 3-D map of the building and surrounding area.

As part of its visit, SkyGen oversaw flights and ran training sessions on topics including navigating new federal drone rules that debuted last month.

In his role as SkyGen president, Boyce said he teaches clients how to speak "fedish" — a term he's coined to describe the official-sounding language used in interactions with federal officials and paperwork.

SkyGen meets with companies looking to bolster their reputations as safe operators of unmanned aircraft.

As larger companies seek out unmanned aircraft service providers, Boyce said they'll delve into the backgrounds of those providers and hire those with proof of insurance, training and company procedures.

"That's where the industry will go because there's too much on the line," he added.