SkySkopes: Pioneering COVID-19 simultaneous drone response operations

“We’ve been successfully executing quick reaction flights in North Dakota with UAS for years,” said company CEO Matt Dunlevy. The company has been developing emergency response capabilities along with partners (see box) who have been researching the use of UAS flying beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) to mitigate the flood risk in Grand Forks when the Red River rises during the snow melt. But the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the requirement for more than just single operation capabilities and SkySkopes is developing a wide range of different, simultaneous operations from a single base.

SkySkopes’ pilots have been testing spraying disinfecting fluids using onto playgrounds to prevent children gathering there from contracting COVID-19 deposits lingering on surfaces. The company has also been flying UAS to test delivery of medical supplies and demonstrating it can deliver basic necessities to people sheltering from the virus and taking social distancing precautions. SkySkopes has also been using advanced UAS Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) and thermal sensors to detect the heightened temperatures of people participating in the research.

According to the company, the operations represent a convergence of technologies, coincidentally timed with new Federal Aviation Administration guidelines that enable development of new ways to fight pandemics.

“We’re flying beyond visual range right now,” Matt Dunlevy told Unmanned Airspace. “Through our work with the Northern Plains UAS test site we’ve been able to get BVLOS missions commercially executed under our belt, which is no easy task. We don’t fly BVLOS for the fight against the virus yet but we have flown BVLOS right now for the fight against the flood.”

“Flying BVLOS in an emergency response fashion like this shows the way the UAS industry is maturing; we now have these advanced permissions and the experience to be able to handle and scale multiple different emergencies simultaneously.”

SkySkopes BVLOS missions have typically been DJI aircraft flying in automated modes, using Skyward for its flight planning software

“We’ll not necessarily use the thumb sticks when it goes BVLOS although of course we could take command back if necessary,” said Matt Dunlevy. “But right now it’s not a question of autonomy – it’s a question of automating what we need to do. The drone flies where we tell it to fly, either in real time or pre-programmed, in waypoint mode or course-lock mode, and at an appropriate altitude.”

The next stage will be to translate the mission capabilities developed for fighting the floods into flighting COVID-19.

“We’re now doing what we can to scale the operations,” said Matt Dunlevy. “Much of the current work is validating the research we have undertaken into counter-coronavirus multi-missions. We are now moving from research to the full-scale commercialisation phase of the COVID-19 mission. So now we’re looking at scale, geography, airframes; we’re looking at how we refine this mission set as a product for society’s immediate benefit. We’re also still working with the researchers but the coalition is initially comfortable with the results and literature.”

“We were the first to fly BVLOS simultaneously over people in the US, thanks to a partnership with Airbus, Sensefly, the test site, and the integration pilot program in North Dakota. But on the COVID-19 missions there’s no need to fly over people. We’re trying to be good social stewards of the technology.

“In Grand Forks the community response is overwhelmingly positive, this is nothing new to them.  It doesn’t take long for North Dakotans to subscribe to the fact that UAS are here, that they’re going to fly for good purposes, and especially for the purpose of fighting the flood or fighting the virus.”

“This operation is an opportunity to demonstrate novel uses for UAS technology to address public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Amy Whitney, Director of the UND Center for Innovation. “This mission is a case study in how the Center for Innovation helps advance innovation and provide commercialization support through the development of university/industry partnerships.”

SkySkopes partnerships build on legacy of researchThe COVID-19 response planning incorporated Electronic Observers and the L3Harris HUBNet deployed to Hillsboro, ND, a predecessor to the technology soon to be deployed throughout the state of North Dakota on a statewide UAS infrastructure. UAS missions have been successfully executed during April and the research consortium includes the numerous entities at the University of North Dakota such as the UND Center for Innovation and the UND Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS).   L3Harris is also a partner in developing the missions.  As a partnership across multiple universities in North Dakota such as NDSU, the operation is also a collaboration with Grand Forks County and Emergency Managers in an example of a Public-Public-Private Partnership.

North Dakota is a major hub for UAS research, which has allowed SkySkopes to exploit the advanced permissions received as a result of work already undertaken by the Department of Transportation, including the Integration Pilot Program.

Image: Matt Dunlevy


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