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Local companies use drones to scan North Dakota Museum of Modern Art

Dunleavy, founder of drone service company SkySkopes and Tau Drones, was on the UND campus on Tuesday, Nov. 23, to conduct an energy audit of the venerable building. Along with Karthik Balaji, product development lead for Tau, and Nick Wamre, lead drone test pilot for Mobile Recon Systems, the trio scanned the building’s exterior searching for energy leaks.

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Nick Wamre, lead drone test pilot for Mobile Recon Systems (left), and Karthik Balaji, product development lead for Tau Drones, look back as a drone hovers near the Museum of Modern Art, on Tuesday, Nov. 23. Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald
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For Matt Dunleavy, inspecting the North Dakota Museum of Art with drones is only natural. He considers them to be extensions of the works housed inside the building.

Dunleavy, founder of drone service company SkySkopes and Tau Drones, was on the UND campus on Tuesday, Nov. 23, to conduct an energy audit of the venerable building. Along with Karthik Balaji, product development lead for Tau, and Nick Wamre, lead drone test pilot for Mobile Recon Systems, the trio scanned the building’s exterior searching for energy leaks.

“Having the North Dakota Museum of Art flown by drones that are themselves works of art, I think is truly fitting,” Dunleavy said.

The Museum of Art is a suitable candidate for a heat loss assessment. The building was built in 1907, and was used as UND’s gymnasium.

It was a joint effort between the companies, as well as the North Dakota University System, and UND’s College of Engineering. Tau Drones hold the intellectual property for analyzing the data gathered by the drone, which is manufactured by Mobile Recon Systems. The drone uses a thermal camera capable of sensing heat loss, to scan the building. Once analyzed, that data will be turned over to UND, and crews can then take steps to better weatherize the building.

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The project represents a big step in commercializing the technology, in terms of the artificial intelligence programs used in gathering the data, then analyzing it. Test and research flights have taken place on most campuses in the North Dakota University System, Dunleavy said. The idea to try to quantify heat loss according to how much money is being spent on energy, got off the ground five years ago. He’s looking forward to putting the technology into practical use.

“We fly a drone around a building and we tell people what needs to be fixed, because this is how much money they're losing,” he said.

On Tuesday, Wamre, a UND graduate, was flying the drone manually, but the company has artificial intelligence software that can use waypoints to determine a flight pattern. Once those waypoints have been entered by the operator, the drone could then scan a building automatically.

At Tau Drones, the company uses artificial intelligence to combine thermodynamics and data analytics, in order to get a picture of where the heat loss is coming from, and how much that costs. Balaji said the immediate goal is to scan the outside of a building, though future applications could make use of a ground-based autonomous vehicle, not unlike a radio-controlled car, to scan a building’s interior.

“We want to go further and we want to automate the entire energy assessment process as a whole,” said Balaji, a former UND researcher.

Dunleavy called the Mobile Recon Systems drone an “American bird (with) American muscle.” The company specializes in drones that can carry heavier payloads. He said he is thrilled to be using drones and sensors that are designed in the country, which are being used on an American campus.

In addition to creating a commercial use for drones and the artificial intelligence software, Dunleavy said Tuesday’s work also has the “feelgood” factor of potentially protecting the contents of the museum.

“It's nice to do this, in the Museum of Art,” he said. “We want to protect art.”

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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