Taking Off: UND Student Talks Founding A Business Based On Underground Drone Flights

This blogpost is authored by Brandi Jewett and is published on her Blog, Droning On. We thank her for taking the time to recap the event.


It started with an episode of the Discovery Channel television show “Dirty Jobs.”

Four years ago, University of North Dakota student Elena Parrello watched as show host Mike Rowe delved into the dark and dank depths of sewer tunnels to accompany inspectors charged with finding faults in the structures.

“There has to be another way,” Parrello said she thought herself as she watched the men trek through dirty conditions and dodge rats.

The episode sparked an idea that has become a business venture for her in the unmanned aircraft systems industry — underground inspection flights. On Thursday in Grand Forks, Parrello recalled her journey of founding Sunshine Aerial Systems to an audience gathered for the monthly Drone Biz event held in the city.

Sunshine Aerial Systems aims to manufacture unmanned aircraft, also called drones, that are specially designed for underground inspections. Her aircraft, a quadcopter called the SwyftLit, would use sense-and-avoid technology and an autonomous flight program to navigate underground and would be waterproofed in order to withstand conditions of the environment.

During her presentation, Parrello showed video of her prototype’s flights and explained she hopes to have the kinks worked out of it in the coming months.

“By the end of 2017, we will be in the marketplace ready to start installations and start sales,” she said.

A senior in UND’s unmanned aircraft systems program, Parrello has been making the most of being in a state considered a hub of industry activity. She has sought advice and resources from those in the unmanned community as well as other business groups. Parrello also is enrolled in the nation’s first UAS-focused business class that recently put UND in the spotlight.

With progress made on designs and patents, Parrello acknowledged to the audience that she still has a lot left on her to-do list when it comes to shoring up her business but is optimistic about the future. Once her aircraft is fully developed, she said the city of Grand Forks will partner with her business on a pilot program. Through the program, the city will provide tunnels for testing the aircraft’s capabilities.

Parrello said she also is seeking a similar partnership with the city of St. Paul, Minn.

“They’re very interested in this technology,” she added.

Drone Biz is held from noon to 1 p.m. every second Thursday of the month at rotating locations in Grand Forks, N.D. 

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