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 megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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