The business potential for unmanned aerial vehicles is nearly limitless — and practically untapped.
Technological advances have rapidly made drones more accessible and easier to operate, but regulations governing their use for commercial purposes had been a nonstarter.
That could be changing, however.
The Federal Aviation Administration last week announced a set of proposals covering small drones that officials said would maintain safe skies without smothering an emerging and potentially lucrative industry. Though drone operators didn’t like everything the FAA put forth, reactions have been generally positive.
“It’s finally giving hope for small drone operators that they’re finally going to have a legal framework within which to do their commercial activity,” said Mike Braasch, a professor of electrical engineering at Ohio University and former director of the school’s Avionics Engineering Center.
Phil Myers, a co-founder and primary pilot for Toledo Aerial Media, flies a DJI Inspire 1 drone over the Maumee River. The drone can record stills and video with its on-board camera and can stay airborne 15 to 20 minutes on one charge.
Those following the industry say the list is long for potential uses for drones.
“The sky’s the limit, literally,” said Jim Jackson, co-founder of Toledo Aerial Media. “You get the common ‘take photographs,’ but there’s so much more you can do.”
Proponents and experts say drones could be used to monitor remote pipelines and power lines, inspect tall communication towers and wind turbines, and help farmers increase yields by giving them a better way to track moisture, pests, and nutrients.
Many believe these duties and others have drones poised to become big business.
Lux Research of Boston, for example, released a report in October that predicts unmanned aerial vehicles will become a $1.7 billion business by 2025.
No doubt a chunk of that will be captured by large businesses. But legions of hobbyists and small-time entrepreneurs like Mr. Jackson are also aiming for part of that pie.
Toledo Aerial Media was incorporated earlier this year, though Mr. Jackson and his three partners have been working on the endeavor for about six months.
Phil Myers, a web designer from Ottawa Lake, Mich., is a co-founder and the primary pilot. He said the group has invested about $12,000 to purchase five drones, cameras, promotional materials, and other accessories.
But because the FAA still officially prohibits drone operators from commercial activities, they say all of their work has been volunteer.
“We’re doing it to kind of get a jump, get our name out there, so when the new rules do get finalized we’re off and running,” Mr. Myers said.
For the time being, they are trying to hone their skills and rack up as much flight time as they can.
“Every day we’re off, we’re out,” Mr. Jackson said. “If we can fly, we fly.”
The drones they use are capable of soaring several thousand feet into the sky and can be controlled from up to two miles away, though they say they keep them under 400 feet and within sight. Their largest drone, a DJI Inspire 1, can fly at speeds nearing 50 miles per hour. It weighs about six and a half pounds. It can stay airborne 15 to 20 minutes on a single charge. It retails for about $3,500.
Generally they have one person flying and one operating the camera. The drones are GPS enabled, which allows them to correct for wind gusts and stay still for photography. The GPS also allows the drone to return to the pilot with the press of a button.
For hobbyists, drones have few restrictions. They are generally covered under the same guidelines that model aircraft have been for the last three decades: stay under 400 feet, stay within the line of sight, stay away from airports, and steer clear of homes.
Mr. Braasch said those rules served model fliers well, but the landscape has changed dramatically in recent years.
“You’ve got this proliferation of drones within the consumer-electronics industry, and that’s made the situation a little more difficult,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of folks able to acquire and fly these things without necessarily having a lot of training.”
Paul Emerick has long been a remote-control enthusiast. About a year ago he and a friend decided to start Aerial Innovations in Northwood to turn their hobby into a business.
“We have been taking quite a few calls,” Mr. Emerick said. “There’s not many jobs. You can’t really use them for commercial purposes yet. If we were to do anything it would be a donation or a pro bono to get our name out there.”
If the rules go through, he sees opportunities for filming weddings, sporting events, real estate, and a host of other things. But even if there weren’t a commercial aspect, he said they’d still be flying.
“They’re fun. It’s a different experience for sure. You get a whole different perspective of everything,” he said.
Still, the FAA’s lack of urgency on the issue of commercial use led to a lot of frustration from drone operators. The agency has issued some very specific exclusions but had not taken on the issue as a whole.
Mr. Braasch said the FAA has generally not concentrated on enforcement, so long as people aren’t flagrantly ignoring public safety.
Paul Ruiz likened it to speeding. A couple miles over the limit is likely to be ignored.
Flying down the highway at 110 mph, however, isn’t.
Mr. Ruiz, a photographer who owns ZebTech Photo & Design, has used drones for aerial photography projects. He believes the FAA’s proposed rules are a good step forward.
“They know it’s good for the economy. It’s going to offer a huge amount of cost savings for businesses and farmers, but it’s also going to maybe get some people employed,” he said.
Mr. Ruiz’s drone is about 20 inches long and weighs just three pounds. He declined to say how often he’s contacted about aerial photography, but he did say it has many potential uses in northwest Ohio and beyond.
Mr. Ruiz did recently shoot some photos of a unique modern home that’s for sale in Whitehouse.
Dick Helminiak, a Realtor with ReMax Preferred in Toledo who has the listing and is a friend of Mr. Ruiz, said the effort was promotional as much as anything.
The result got mixed reviews.
Still, he sees drone photography as a useful tool for real estate agents.
“I think it’s going to be extremely successful for certain high-end properties,” he said.
Large, estate-type properties with pools, ponds, and outbuildings are far more likely to benefit from aerial photography than homes in cookie-cutter subdivisions.
“It’s gotta be the right property for that,” Mr. Helminiak said, “but I think it’s a technology that’s here to stay.”
Fertile business area
One of the most promising industries for drone applications is agriculture, where an eye in the sky could help farmers look in on livestock, examine crop conditions, and even determine where to apply pesticides.
“It’s almost the ideal application of drone technology, and there are folks who would probably say that’s going to be one of the largest applications,” Mr. Braasch said.
Katy Martin Rainey is an assistant professor of agronomy at Purdue University. While much of her work focuses on plant breeding and genetics, she is also studying how drones can be used to improve crops.
“If we were in a completely enabling regulatory environment, you would see the use of drones immediately,” she said.
Ms. Rainey said drones could help farms of all sizes, saving farmers time and money. Beyond allowing farmers to have a birds-eye view of their fields, with the right equipment drones could collect data such as crop health, soil moisture, nutrient levels, and areas of pest infestation. That data can be put in a map, which can help farmers improve their crop yields.
“When you look at how we have to feed so many people in the future, we have to do things smarter to really squeeze every bit of yield out of fields we can get in a sustainable way,” Ms. Rainey said. “This is just another piece of data integration in agriculture.”
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