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New UND class puts focus on the business of drones

GRAND FORKS – While many around her want to take unmanned aircraft to levels in the sky, University of North Dakota student Elena Parrello has plans to take them the opposite direction – underground to inspect infrastructure such as sewers.

The senior has an aircraft prototype and ambition but says she needs a business plan to get her venture, Sunshine Industrial, moving forward.

Parrello is one of about 20 students enrolled in Entrepreneurship 395, a special topics course focused on the pursuit of business in the unmanned aircraft systems sector.

Offered through UND’s School of Entrepreneurship, the class is open to students of any major and aims to expand their understanding of unmanned technology’s place in the global economy, aircraft operations and business development.

“(The class) is another reminder that it’s a fledgling industry and that people are still standing up businesses for the first time that we’ve never seen before,” said Matt Dunlevy, one of the course’s instructors.

The course is a reflection of the growing presence of unmanned aircraft, also known as drones, both at UND and nationwide.

Its two instructors represent different sides of the industry – established giants and startups looking to capture larger shares of the market. When they’re not in the classroom, Dunlevy is president and CEO of a nearly 3-year-old aerial services company, SkySkopes, and Rick Thomas is the Red River Valley strategic alliance program manager for Northrop Grumman’s aerospace division.

As part of Thomas and Dunlevy’s curriculum, students form groups and discuss business concepts their members could pursue for the class’s final project: a feasible UAS business plan.

In addition to the business planning aspect of the class, students also receive information that prepares them for another reality of the industry – operating a drone.

In order to become a certified pilot, the students need to pass an aeronautical knowledge test administered by the Federal Aviation Administration. The first half of the class serves as a learning bootcamp of sorts, with students encouraged to take the test after completing that portion of the course.

Paired with the class’s experiential learning opportunities – including watching flight demonstrations – is the chance for students to pick the brains of industry experts who serve as guest speakers throughout the course.

“Grand Forks is unique because we have a heavyweight lineup of subject matter experts and have a higher per capita concentration of UAS experts than perhaps anywhere else in the United States,” Dunlevy said.

During the class’s Wednesday meeting focusing on aircraft maintenance, students heard from Jason Stahl, a former Federal Aviation Administration employee who now works in the private industry.

Stahl helped pen a new set of federal aviation rules for small drones that went live Aug. 29.

The regulations open up aviation to more than just those who can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars securing various pilot’s licenses, Stahl said, noting that for less than $2,000 someone could start a drone-based business. The opportunity for new businesses also grows as more uses of the technology are pioneered.