CEO Roundtable in Williston 2019

At left, Tommy Kenville, CEO of ISight RPV, talks to Joe Kauffman, a professional land surveyor with Interstate Engineering, after a presentation on drones during the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce’s CEO Roundtable in Williston. It was the first time the event has been held in Williston.

North Dakota is leading the way on solutions for unmanned aviation, and the Oil Patch is going to play a key role in the effort.

North Dakota has already placed its first beyond visual line of sight radar in the Red River Valley. But the second one is coming to the Oil Patch, according to Tommy Kenville, CEO of ISight RPV.

Kenville was in Williston on Wednesday, Nov. 6, for the CEO Roundtable, put on by the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. The topic this month was transportation innovation. The forum included presentations on electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, traditional aviation, and the state’s relatively recent Load Pass system, which has standardized the permitting of overweight loads for many of the state’s counties and townships.

Kenville told the Williston Herald the Oil Patch’s first radar will likely be placed toward the end of January, probably somewhere between Watford City and Williston. The exact location will depend on where the most needs can be met.

“It will be about how many users, is there a need, is there a demand,” he said, adding, “There is a lot of work out here.”

Ultimately every area of the state will have beyond visual line of sight capability. North Dakota will place 38 radar systems in a statewide network. The cost, at $28 million, was approved in the last legislative session as part of an overall $33 million package to position the state as a leader in the drone industry.

“When we first put the (BVLOS) proposal together, we counted all the emergency communication towers, so every county kind of has that,” Kenville said. “That is a great location to put the radars. They don’t have to go there, but (that infrastructure) is already there.”

Each radar system will be able to “see” everything flying in the air above 400 feet for a 65-mile radius. That will allow drones to avoid aircraft and each other, and thus fly safely beyond visual line of sight.

“It’s going to be a controlled release,” Kenville said. “I will be flying out here probably up to 5 miles to make sure I’m safe at that distance, and then growing outward from there.”

Kenville said his company has three projects in the Oil Patch set up already, two with an oil company and one with McKenzie County. The latter involves monitoring road conditions after wet-weather events.

The kind of drones Kenville is using are large-sized, gas-powered devices that can fly four and five hours at a time. Some of the gas-powered devices are actually fixed-wing aircraft. They include a magnetic system that charges four electric engines. This gives the plane an 8-minute window to land, if it were to suddenly run out of gas power.

Kenville’s drones have done a wide range of activities, across business sectors.

Last year in Wyoming, the company did a pronghorn sheep count for a 30,000-acre ranch. Later, they flew a cattle ranch, checking fence lines, water and vegetation, and counting cattle.

Up to 87,120 acres of precision ag have been flown, though that sector has been hampered by a lack, so far, of data processing infrastructure.

Kenville’s drones have also mapped the exact locations of some lost drain tiles, and inspected pipelines, wind turbines and power lines.

While some have suggested drones might be used to make personal deliveries, Kenville thinks they probably won’t be used to deliver any personal pan pizzas any time soon. He sees too many logistics in the way, and safety issues due to power lines and things like that.

But blood or other emergency medical necessities, however, are a different story.

“If there were a need for say type A blood, that could get delivered on a small drone,” he said. “The drone could be programmed to fly there very quickly and inexpensively.”

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