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Grand Forks' Isight Drone Services works globally, but keeps the jobs at home

Each new hire at Isight means another person who can get on the road, get work done, and help grow the company. And those local graduates don’t have far to go to get a well-paying tech job. Of the 23 employees at Isight, 20 are UND grads. Kenville, the majority owner of the company, is also a UND alumnus, as is Nate Leben, a minority owner.

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Tommy Kenville, right, CEO of Isight Drone Services, with part of his team (from left) Hunter Hegel, Austin Yaggie, Joe Schoepfer, Doug McDonald, Mike Link, Ryan Moriearty, Brandon Cooksey and Bjorn Swanson at their headquarters on the west end of Grand Forks. The company employees 23 pilots and 20 of them are UND graduates. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

For Tommy Kenville, the period of growth at his company Isight Drone Services is the culmination of years of effort in cultivating what’s called the state’s unmanned aerial systems ecosystem.

The best part of that growth is being able to offer jobs to local young people. Kenville just hired three more UND graduates — most people at Isight are UND grads — and it’s likely he will hire more, and potentially from other local colleges, like Northland Community and Technical College.

“To me, it's so fun to keep the young kids in North Dakota for tech jobs,” said Kenville. “Every one of those people would have left if we wouldn't have created this drone industry here.”

Each new hire at Isight means another person who can get on the road, get work done, and help grow the company. And those local graduates don’t have far to go to get a well-paying tech job. Of the 23 employees at Isight, 20 are UND grads. Kenville, the majority owner of the company, is also a UND alumnus, as is Nate Leben, a minority owner.

Company employees have been busy. Kenville said Isight saw a 47% growth rate in 2021 over the previous year, pulling in $3.2 million. Drone pilots travel by truck — Kenville said he just bought the fifteenth work truck — and travel across the U.S. on jobs for clients.

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

“These kids get to travel all over the U.S. now and work and make a good living,” he said.

Sometimes those pilots travel the world. The coronavirus pandemic has dried up international work for the moment, but Kenville said he has a client waiting to work with those 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 blades across the country, and in the state flew more than 4,000 miles in McKenzie County where Watford City is located, and where Isight has an office, checking out the county's gravel roads. Isight also has offices in Grand Forks, Fargo and the Twin Cities.

Drones offer numerous possibilities for companies in a variety of fields, and Isight works with clients to find money and time saving solutions. In precision agriculture work, pilots search for certain noxious weeds or check for damage after a storm or survey drain tile. The company’s drone pilots have even worked on a project counting duck eggs for the conservation group Delta Waterfowl.

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

Kenville, who goes by Tommy because of the number of “Toms” in his family — his father is named Tom and his stepfather was the late Tom Clifford, president of 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 mindset, and that's why Sen. John Hoeven, then governor, called Kenville in 2008 to see if he would support the state’s nascent drone industry. Kenville told Hoeven drones would be a gamechanger.

“(Hoeven) said, ‘if we go after it as a state, would you help us?’ and I said, ‘sure,’” Kenville said. “And that's kind of how it all started.”

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Kenville worked with Hoeven, a champion of the industry in North Dakota since its infancy, to create an advocacy group to speak with a unified voice for UAS in the state. That group spoke to the Federal Aviation Administration about the desire for drones in North Dakota. Later, and after legislative work when Hoeven became senator, the state was chosen to be the first of six test sites for drone flying and research, and resulted in the creation of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

Said Hoeven: “He's been a big part of the team that's helped make it happen. No question about it.”

Since the creation of the NPUASTS, the ecosystem has grown considerably. Its partners include UND, Grand Forks Air Force Base, Northland Community and Technical College and private businesses, among others. It’s that ecosystem that Kenville says has allowed a company like his to flourish, and to hire local graduates trained in all things drones.

“Those are critical pieces so that a small company like mine can make it,” Kenville said.

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

Kenville said he envisions more drone companies popping up because of the network, and said he can see his pilots inspecting utilities on the other side of the state from Grand Forks, saving time and money, and adding more local jobs.

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

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