Science in the sky

As young boys growing up in Nikiski, Ben and Nick Kellie spent hours upon hours creating memories together by flying through the Alaska sky. Today, they do the same thing, with two major differences: the aircraft are smaller, and they get paid for it.

The brothers are just over a year into running their drone services company K2 Dronotics, LLC, based in Anchorage. While it wasn’t necessarily written in stone that the two would end up in business together, Ben Kellie said it was there in the foundation of their life on the Kenai Peninsula.

“I think we … always had a plan to try to be in Alaska working on a business, because that’s what our dad did,” Ben said.

The boys grew up flying with their father through his air charter company, which he ran out of the Kenai Municipal Airport, Ben said.

“It was just a cool way of life and something that we wanted to be a part of, and be back in Alaska and working on cool stuff,” he said.

Ben, the CEO and chief pilot for the business, got his degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Alaska Fairbanks before getting his master’s in the same field at Ohio State University. His younger brother, Nick, got the same degree from UAF before going to work as a field engineer in the oil and gas industry on the North Slope. It was while Nick finished up his last project on the slope that his brother called and offered him a change in career.

Ben had realized during his former job with an aerospace company in the Lower 48 that there are several uses for drones when someone brought one to the site of a project, he said. He asked his brother what he thought about going into business together.

“And I (said), ‘I’m going back up right now and I’m already thinking of, like, a dozen ways we could use these to make my job better and everybody else’s (job better),’” Nick said. “… The project was ending and so I came home and instead of deciding what to do next, I already knew by the time I got off the plane that we’re going to try and start this drone business.”

Nick is now in charge of missions and operations for K2 Dronotics.

“Probably what I enjoy doing the most is … it kind of seems silly, but it’s the field work,” Nick said. “No matter what sort of data we’re gathering, I just like being out. It’s sort of romanticized in my head. When we were getting ready to start I’m like, ‘We’ll get to go out, be all alone in the wilderness, hike around and do this cool stuff,’ and we’ve actually gotten to do it — it’s really cool. It sure beats a 9-to-5 job sitting at the computer all day.”

The pair are largely focused right now on providing drone services to the oil and gas and construction industries in the form of inspections and mapping. They also offer photo and video services, produce their own hardware and sensors, and offer consulting and training, according to the company’s website.

The training aspect could be helpful as the business grows and the brothers get more work across the state, Ben said.

“We understand that some people are just bent on doing the flying themselves,” he said. “It costs a lot sometimes just to get to the job, regardless of the fact that we’re still cheaper. If there’s recurring work, it would be better just to have somebody there.”

The brothers have talked with a few different companies about training someone who would be able to stay on site and perform the physical drone work, with the main hurdle being the Federal Aviation Administration certification. Nick and Ben would still receive the data and send the company whatever products were to be made from the data.

Alaska is rife for possibilities when it comes to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and systems, the brothers said. From inspections on oil and gas and construction projects to aerial mapping, drones can simplify otherwise tedious and expensive work, especially in a state where many projects may be remote.

Getting people on board with including videos, photos, models or other imaging made from data taken from the sky can be challenging in and of itself sometimes, Ben said, simply because many companies have gotten used to not including it in their projects.

“Education is a big part of what we do because, up to this point, a lot of aerial imaging has been so expensive that people have kind of not really figured out how they could have it incorporated into their project or planning or monitoring,” he said.

While interest in the mapping and inspection services the company provides didn’t take too long to garner, getting the business off the ground was more of a long haul. The majority of the company’s first year was spent working toward Federal Aviation Administration approval for the brothers.

“We jumped in full speed,” Ben said. “And getting FAA certified when we started was a really long process. They only just came out with their actual process in August, so we had to essentially get permission to be exempt from the rules, which ended up being, like a seven-month process.”

Getting properly certified wasn’t all the brothers had to work through. Nick, who has less experience in starting a business than his brother, said he was a bit surprised by all that goes in to running the office side of things.

Talking to others who have started their own business has been helpful in terms of getting advice and mentoring, he said.

“I’m sure the things you don’t expect are different for everyone, but there’s always things that you don’t even think about,” Nick said. “Probably for me it was the payroll side.”

The first months of forming K2 Dronotics were spent laying ground work with businesses, and later offering demo flights to prove the company’s worth, Ben said. Once the drones got in the air and the data came back, however, the brothers were booking flights fast, he said.

“We went out and mapped some areas for a company and turned a full day of work into a morning of work,” Ben said. “And it was in a really remote area where you’re kicking through alders, you’re going up and down a mountainside, and instead we just stood down by the truck and we flew the whole thing.”

The brothers take jobs on the peninsula as well as in Anchorage, and base out of Kenai when they do.

“We just try to spend a lot of time in Kenai because we’re from there, and there’s a lot of oil and gas and fisheries that obviously we’d like to be a part of and work within,” Ben said.

As K2 Dronotics grows and becomes more established, the brothers would like to branch out into different industries, like wildlife. They approached the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service this past spring, Ben said, but breaking drones into that sphere will be hard as long as it continues to face major budget constraints.

The brothers are, however, bringing thermal sensors online, which Ben said should be useful for animal counts, a practice he said could greatly benefit from the use of drones.

“I have known people who do animal counts, and it’s a very qualitative approach, because you’re looking out the window and trying to count what you see,” Ben said. “So if you can instead … fly over mostly silently, capture an area and just, since we have a computer count the heat spots later, you can get a good idea of your per-square-mile animals. So I think there’s a chance for a huge improvement there.”


Reach Megan Pacer at

More in News

Sens. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage, right, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, and Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, discuss a bill proposing a nearly 17% increase in per-student education funding Wednesday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini /Juneau Empire)
State Senate bill would bump per-student funding amount by $1,000

If approved, the legislation would bump state education funding by more than $257 million

Recognizable components make up this metal face seen in a sculpture by Jacob Nabholz Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the Kenai Art Center, in Kenai, Alaska, as part of Metalwork & Play. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Metalwork gets time to shine

Metal is on showcase this month at the Kenai Art Center

This 2019 aerial photo provided by ConocoPhillips shows an exploratory drilling camp at the proposed site of the Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope. The Biden administration issued a long-awaited study on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, that recommends allowing three oil drilling sites in the region of far northern Alaska. The move, while not final, has angered environmentalists who see it as a betrayal of President Joe Biden’s pledges to reduce carbon emissions and promote green energy. (ConocoPhillips via AP)
Biden administration recommends major Alaska oil project

The move — while not final — drew immediate anger from environmentalists

Homer Electric Association General Manager Brad Janorschke testifies before the Senate Resources Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot via Gavel Alaska)
Senate group briefed on future of Cook Inlet gas

Demand for Cook Inlet gas could outpace supply as soon as 2027

The logo for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is displayed inside the George A. Navarre Borough Admin Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Peninsula voices join state debate over school funding

Lawmakers heard pleas from education leaders around Alaska to increase the state’s base student allocation

Tamera Mapes and a client laugh and joke with one another during a free haircut at Project Homeless Connect on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Caring and connecting

Project Homeless Connect offers a variety of services

This September 2011 aerial photo provided by the Environmental Protection Agency, shows the Bristol Bay watershed in Alaska. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, effectively vetoed a proposed copper and gold mine in the remote region of southwest Alaska that is coveted by mining interests but that also supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. (Joseph Ebersole/EPA via AP)
EPA blocks Pebble Mine

Pebble called the EPA’s action “unlawful” and political and said litigation was likely

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID-19 cases continue to climb

Statewide hospitalizations decreased slightly

A plow truck clears snow from the Kenai Spur Highway on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna council approves extra $100k for snow removal

At the end of December, the department was already more than $27,000 over their $100,000 budget for snow removal

Most Read