When Tim Sheehy started Bridger Aerospace in 2014, he was just one person with one aircraft helping ranchers keep track of cattle in the Madison and Ruby valleys.

Now, Bridger Aerospace and its sister company, Ascent Vision, employ about 120 people and operate 10 manned aircraft and several drones. And the Belgrade-based companies are also adding six scooper planes, used to grab water to dump on wildfires, and expanding its air attack fleet.

Bridger Aerospace was formed first as an aerial firefighting company. Among other fire management functions, it has started using drone technology to map out blazes and show how they evolve in real time.

After realizing some of the sensor technology could be used for military intelligence and surveillance purposes, Ascent Vision was formed.

Sheehy is the CEO of both companies, housed in the same space, which has expanded three times and is adding 100,000 square feet of construction that includes a large airplane hangar.

Since opening, the two companies have carved out a name for themselves in their respective industries. In July 2018, Bridger Aerospace became the first private company to legally fly a drone over a wildfire. And in July this year, the U.S. Marine Corps used new technology designed by Ascent Vision to thwart an Iranian drone.

With a staff made up of mostly veterans, Sheehy himself served as a Navy Seal for 10 years and is a Purple Heart recipient. With the strong veteran base and influx of engineers coming out of Montana State University, Sheehy said Bozeman has been a good base for the companies.

About 75% of employees work in the Belgrade offices, with the other 25% working out of its Australia, New Mexico, Denver and Greensboro, North Carolina offices.

Mostly business support staff are based in other areas, with those jobs being harder to fill in Montana, he said. Though there’s an international pilot shortage, those positions haven’t been hard for Bridger Aerospace to fill, as Sheehy said those interested in fighting fires are a unique demographic.

It has been hard to find mechanics, though. There’s a shortage of tradespeople across industries, and Sheehy said the companies have gone so far as to recruit in high schools.

Having an active photonics and optics scene in Bozeman has also helped the companies find success.

“The optics and photonics industry being so fertile has meant a lot to us,” Sheehy said. “The cluster model of business makes sense.”

With Bozeman being in wildfire country, it also makes sense for Bridger Aerospace to be here. Though it has been a mild wildfire year so far, he expects things to get worse with climate change.

“That’s why we’re making this level of investment in the business,” he said.

One of the biggest reasons it’s investing in the technology, though, is because of the influx of people in the Rocky Mountain West. As the area has grown, more people inhabit the borders of urban areas and the wilderness, where there’s more urgency to extinguish fires that may threaten people’s lives.

Sheehy said Bridger Aerospace and Ascent Vision are important companies to have in Bozeman, as they aren’t dependent on tourism or other industries like that.

“This is providing something that’s local and organic,” he said.

Abby Lynes can be reached at alynes@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2651. Follow her on Twitter @Abby_Lynes.

Abby Lynes covers business and the economy for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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