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Taking Flight

A variety of Southwest Florida companies are embracing the many uses of unmanned aerial vehicles.

EYE TOWARD THE FUTURE - Sky Angel owner Stephen Myers sees vast possibilities in the growing drone business.

Alex Stafford

THE GLOSSY IMAGES and detailed data that drones collect have piqued the interest of Southwest Florida’s engineering, real estate, media, agriculture, turf management, construction and even aviation companies. Some are testing drones, or UAVs, in pilot projects because they see great things, including profits, on the horizon.

“You can get much clearer pictures [than with manned aircraft]. You can map things more accurately,” says Michael Ward, director of survey and vice president for RWA, a Naples consulting firm providing civil engineering, surveying, mapping and land planning. “Yes, there is definitely a benefit to this technology.”

New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules have changed requirements for operators of UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds. Before Aug. 29, operators needed a pilot’s license and a special exemption to fly a drone for commercial uses. Now, operators must receive a remote pilot airman certificate by passing a test at an FAA-approved testing center, or if they had a pilot certificate, they must take an online FAA training course and complete a flight review. (The exemption is no longer offered.)

Those changes have caused drone operators to beef up their business plans.

“This whole opportunity now to utilize the technology for commercial purposes has been opened up for the use of small unmanned aerial vehicles,” says Orrin B. MacMurray, a professional engineer (PE), chairman emeritus for C&S Worldwide Holdings in New York and a former American Council of Engineering Companies chairman who served on an FAA committee about UAVs.

Drones aren’t just a novelty but also a job-generating tool. Between 2015 and 2025, more than 103,000 new UAV-related jobs are expected to be created with an economic impact of $82 billion, according to a report by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. In Florida, that should translate to 4,803 jobs, with an economic impact of $3.8 billion. Florida’s UAV-related job growth will be the fourth largest in the nation, behind California, Texas and Washington, according to the group’s 2013 study.

A handful of local companies are hoping to grow by providing drone footage, data and analysis, and by training operators.

“I think it will become ubiquitous and it will change our lives as we know it,” says Stephen Myers, owner of Angel Eyes UAV, a Fort Myers-based provider of UAV solutions including flight operations and a data management process.

WITH A DRONE’S-EYE VIEW, companies and media outlets are finding new ways to look at sites and projects.

When Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump visited the area in September, Waterman Broadcasting’s Sky 2 drone showed how long the lines stretched to enter Germain Arena and the aftermath on traffic. For missing person cases, a drone could fly over the area and show the terrain and environment, says Darrel Lieze-Adams, executive news director and manager of promotions for Waterman Broadcasting (NBC2 and ABC7).

The FAA doesn’t regulate how UAVs gather data on people or property, but pilots must follow local and state privacy laws before gathering info through photography or remote sensing technology, it says.

“I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from a few of the naysayers is this fear that we’re just kind of randomly flying it around and spying on people, which absolutely couldn’t be further from the truth,” Lieze-Adams says. “We’re using it in a way to help supplement stories.”

Putting Sky 2 into the air required patience, even in the fast-paced news business. It purchased its drone in January 2016, but had to wait for new FAA rules to get it licensed and for photojournalist Todd Ofenbeck, who already was a pilot, to receive his remote pilot certificate from the FAA.

Drones for hobbyists can be as cheap as $100, but drones that deliver broadcast-quality images, can cost between $4,000-$8,000, Lieze-Adams says. He would not disclose exactly how much Waterman
paid for its drone. Ultimately, he says, buying one is a better investment than spending between $800-$900 to rent a helicopter for footage. Plus, he adds, that the station now can more regularly shoot video, such as over the water, that otherwise would have been cost prohibitive.

“For the expenditure of buying the drone itself, it doesn’t take long to pay for itself,” Lieze-Adams says.

There’s growing chatter about using drones in fields such as engineering, which traditionally has used fixed-wing aircraft with cameras to collect images for digital mapping. Now drones can help create a 2D images and 3D models to assess the volume of inventory and identify problems on a site, such as farmland or a construction project, and also visualize the property for design and assessment. For an engineering firm like RWA, Ward sees potential applications in golf course design, land development, beach assessment, roadways design and civil engineering projects.

Angel Eyes was founded three years ago by Myers, who held a pilot’s license and worked in data and managed information technology services. Instead of focusing solely on photography, he provides data and analysis for industries such as construction, engineering and agriculture. His firm uses the data, captured by drones, to run algorithms that provide analysis.

“Really what we do is monetize, or create value, out of the data,” he says.

For example, in “precision agriculture,” farms use drones to determine how many plants and trees they have, which help them budget and allocate replacements. Myers says up-to-date drone imagery and data replace satellite imagery that may be 30 days old.

“It gives you much more information, much more quickly, much more accurately, with less cost,” Myers says. “We say, ‘Hey we can do the same thing for you for half the cost, and it will be better.’ That’s an easy sell.”

Angel Eyes, Ward says, was on the cutting edge locally with this technology.

“We have to develop a nice marriage between the hardware and the software to produce the maps,” he says. “We will be able to collect a lot of data very rapidly and process it accurately, and can produce high-quality maps [once] we figure out the process.”

DRONE FOOTAGE can provide breathtaking photos of homes and estates and their architectural features, as well as give detailed views of property features, such as lot lines, says Matt Lane, senior vice president/ general manager and managing broker of real estate firm William Raveis Florida. Most of his agents use experienced pilots and drone operators, which can range from $300-$1,100 per flight with photos, he estimates.

“It’s really imperative that you have the best rich media that you can offer to differentiate your property online,” Lane says. “When you’re in a very competitive or crowded market, your whole goal with a drone is to generate interest in that property. You’re offering a new level of excitement and drama.”

The size or asking price of a home doesn’t necessarily dictate when a drone is used, he says, since some landscaping may hinder the ability to fly around the property or capture clear views. But what about privacy concerns? Lane says his firm gets permission from its homeowner clients to use drone imagery, and if there’s concern from neighbors, “we will knock on the door and let them know and make sure they’re comfortable with it.”

There’s a constant fight for positive public relations and education about drones, especially with continued stories about people shooting them down, says Allyson Hanson, marketing leader at Soaring Sky, which was founded in 2014 in Fort Myers.

The FAA states that drones can’t be flown over “anyone who is not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, or not inside a covered stationary vehicle.” Drones can’t be operated from a moving vehicle unless it is flying over a “sparsely populated area.”

“We don’t want people thinking that we’re using it to do anything other than to gather news and information,” Lieze-Adams says. “There is no desire to invade people’s privacy, and quite frankly, you really can’t. There are so many regulations in place that dictate what you can and can’t do. The last thing we want to do is to do something different and lose our license.”

Myers says often when people shoot down a drone, they’re assuming its camera is taking their photo. But in cases, such as shooting farmland, for example, it’s not a normal camera, but a multi-spectral, near-infrared camera.

“We’re not taking pictures of people in the first place,” he says.

THIS FALL, PARAGON FLIGHT has demoed the capabilities of drones to its clients and start-ups involved in RocketLounge, a tech incubator in Fort Myers. People are surprised by how easy they are to fly and wonder how they could use them in their business, say Chris Schoensee and Jeffrey Wolf, co-owners of Paragon Flight, which was named the nation’s best flight training school in 2014 by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

But the big opportunity Paragon’s owners see right now is serving as an FAA testing center. In September, the Fort Myers-based flight school tested about 25 to 30 people, ranging from real estate agents (the biggest group) to entrepreneurs to engineering professionals to media members.

Soaring Sky has more than doubled in a year to 10 full-time employees and 50 pilots, as well as its services, about 90 percent of which currently are conducted in Florida. Clients also include WINK News. Soaring Sky continues hire pilots, as it plans to expand across the nation, particularly due to growth in its work on cell tower and solar panel inspections.

Drone operators agree that they are still in an educational phase with the public and clients about the new industry. Myers often hears questions about the legality of using drones, including what it takes to be operating legally, to their capabilities.

“The biggest ‘aha’ moment when we go talk to people is, ‘I had no idea you could do that,’” he says. “Right now, that is such a largely untapped industry. I’m sure people are going to do something stupid and give the industry the black eye, but right now I think there’s so much momentum behind it. If someone flies a drone into a house ... it won’t impede the growth of the industry now.”

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