Drone service providers see growth in fledgling industry
Drones conjure up images of everything from toys to components of weapons systems.
Companies, however, are cultivating the middle ground, tapping the devices’ usefulness as an everyday tool for industries ranging from real estate and construction to utilities.
Companies are popping up offering photo and video services using drones. Most are small and localized, but a new franchise operator serving Columbus and other parts of Ohio demonstrates the speed at which drone-based businesses are growing in size and professionalism — and attracting funding.
Measure, a Washington, D.C.-based franchiser of drone services, has a new outlet in the Cincinnati suburb of Loveland. It offers industry-specific services based on video and data collected from drones. For example, the company can provide 3-D modeling data revealing the size, volume and makeup of a pile of dirt and other materials on a construction site.
The franchise is owned by Joel Lundeen and Carrie Seddon, who are charged with building up a local client base and who also gain access to Measure’s national accounts.
Lundeen said drones are particularly useful for tasks that would be tedious and potentially dangerous for humans to perform, such as inspecting power lines or the roof of a building.
“We have a full training procedure and curriculum all our pilots will go through,” said Lundeen, who has a background in real estate inspections and holds what’s known as a Part 107 sUAS pilot certificate from the FAA. Like everything else about drone regulations, these certificates are a recent introduction, within the past 16 months.
“It’s still kind of the Wild West out there,” said Scott Liston of Cincinnati-based Argus International.
Argus specializes in aviation safety, data and technology. Last year, it began offering the Argus Audit Standard, a certification “designed for commercial unmanned aircraft operations to assess their operational safety and quality standards relative to industry best practices,” according to the company’s website.
“Unlike with manned aviation, on the unmanned side, the Federal Aviation Administration regulations do not at all address companies that operate drones commercially. … Rather, all of the regulatory initiatives have focused on the pilots themselves,” Liston said. “Many of the 80,000-plus Part 107 certificated pilots … have started some sort of ‘drone for hire’ business.”
Liston foresees plenty of business to go around. He said his company is assisting two Fortune 100 companies, which he can’t name, to set up in-house drone operations. He said even these companies plan to continuing using skilled outside operators as needed.
Andy Gottesman is an example of a drone operator who got in early by drone industry standards — three and a half years ago — ahead of the current FAA regulations being established in mid-2016. The 28-year-old graduate of Ohio State University used drones as a photojournalist for The Lantern student paper there
Through his company, Drone 614, Gottesman works with drone pilots in several cities. A licensed Realtor, he has a particular specialty in working for real-estate clients, who use drones to photograph properties and create video tours.
Gottesman said one business challenge is paying for insurance, which is a costly necessity. Another one is navigating changing local regulations as cities and universities, including Ohio State, seek to institute their own drone restrictions.
Such rules have been a “thorny” issue, said James W. Gregory, director of Ohio State’s Aerospace Research Center and a professor of engineering.
“The FAA claims they have the authority and the right to regulate airspace, which they define as down to shoe-top level,” Gregory said. “But a university or municipality can control what people on the ground can do. … OSU has an approval process to give permission to shoot drone footage on campus.”
The possible uses for the so-called unmanned aircraft systems extend far beyond taking images from above. Already, package delivery has been tested, for example.
Gregory and Liston are encouraged by a UAS Integration Pilot Program announced by the Trump administration in early November. It is designed “to accelerate the integration of UAS (drones) into … airspace and to spur innovation,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The program “will seek partnerships between state, local, and tribal government entities and private industry” to gather data from test flights “over people and package delivery,” according to the Department of Transportation, while giving states and municipalities some control over these tests.
Liston said the announcement gives him “a little hope that the U.S. will be able to stay up with other countries around the world” in terms of drone innovation.