Storytellers: Drone pilot in search of new perspective

Kirk Williams knows some people look at him with a sympathetic eye. Far too often, he wishes those eyes would focus elsewhere.

“I can hear Oprah now,” joked the quadriplegic as he struggles to get into his modified hand cycle. “There would probably be some piano music playing in the background.”

Williams, injured in a mountain bike accident years ago while attending CU in Boulder, is not a fan of sap.

“Yeah, I’m not a big pity guy,” he said.

Today his focus is much more on what he can do as opposed to what he cannot.

And that means setting his sight on something he figures could help him make a good living for the rest of his life.

He flies drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles.

Put a camera on a UAV and a man who spends much of his life in a wheelchair can take a picture from anywhere he wants.

“There are very few jobs that I can do and even fewer that I want to do. This fulfills both of these,” he said.

Williams was quickly falling in love with photography before the accident, but struggled in the years since trying to figure out a way to turn a hobby into a profession.

When he attended a seminar on drones years ago, the lights went off.

“I’m the only guy asking, ‘Well, what does this do? How long will it stay up? How hard is it to fly?’” he said.

When one presenter showed aerial video photography, something clicked.

“I’m like, ‘Holy cow! Look at this,’” he said.

The only problem, he quickly found out, was the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration wanted all commercial drone pilots to have an actual pilot’s license.

And, as a quadriplegic, that simply was never going to happen.

So he started asking for an exemption from the FAA. He paid a lawyer to fight for his case.

Years into the fight, he started to lose some hope.

And then this year, the FAA decided to drop the pilot’s license requirement. Williams said it was a little frustrating.

All of the work he and his lawyer had put in up until then was largely rendered moot by the decision.

Yet, in the end, it will allow him to literally get his business off the ground.

The videos he shows clients are already spectacular. Aerial photography simply provides a different perspective to the world.

Williams loves that.

He still believes regulations are important in the industry and recommends first time users use discretion.

“Don’t fly it over your kid’s soccer game,” he quipped.

As for any interview with Oprah, Williams said he’s hardly losing any sleep over it. He’s just not sure his story is that kind of story.

“This can be inspirational without being sappy,” he said.