Drones rise from novelty to business in western Colorado
As the novelty of unmanned aerial photography begins to wear off, local companies in the fledgling field are finding different uses for the technology and learning to navigate a murky regulatory environment.
“I love doing this because I get to combine cutting-edge technology in my favorite passions of aviation, photography and video production to create from rarely, or never-seen-before, angles of our beautiful state,” owner Seth Hawk of Hawk Aerial Solutions wrote in a recent “Meet Your Merchant” submission. “It’s incredibly gratifying to see people’s faces light up the first time they see us take flight, and then experience a whole new perspective on the world around them.”
The company’s demo reel includes a healthy dose of outdoor adventure and sweeping vistas, but also illustrates other applications, particularly property tours — an increasingly common use for aerial photography in the resort market.
While Altitude Filmworks’ 2014 reel keeps more standard recreation emphasis, the 3-year-old company is also branching out.
“The challenge we’re facing as a business is the tech improving so rapidly. The angle alone used to be enough of a selling point, but now there’s a lot of guys out there with a thousand-dollar Phantom,” explained managing partner Jonathan McNally.
The drones in Altitude’s fleet have a higher payload than the average mass market quadcopter. In addition to towing better cameras — which, coupled with experience, means better production quality — it allows for equipment for applications such as aerial inspections and digital terrain mapping.
“We have also seen surging demand for this type of digital terrain modeling from engineers, surveyors, land planners, contractors and others who require extremely accurate topographic data at affordable prices,” McNally said.
‘HAVE TO TIPTOE’
Experience also helps avoid potential safety or legal pitfalls.
“We really have to tiptoe,” McNally said. ”There’s a lot of advisories, but there’s nothing behind it to back it up. The ambiguity creates a challenge.”
One regulation requires drones to stay less than 400 feet above the ground, which many amateur drone owners may exceed without realizing it. Last winter, 20-year-old Auguin Christian was issued a summons for reckless endangerment for flying a quadcopter too close to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport.
The FAA restricts drones within 5 miles of an airport, although enforcement is next to impossible.
Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport Manager Dick Weinberg isn’t scouring that radius for violations — although he keeps his eye out.
“If I see somebody operating a drone and I feel it’s an unsafe situation, I’m going to jump in — either speak to the operator or get the FAA involved,” he said. “It’s the Wild West with this. It’s wide open. A lot people who operate them don’t have the foggiest idea about the rules.”
It’s those folks, more than the commercial operators or even well-informed amateurs, who concern Weinberg.
“I really hate to say it, but I think that the probability of one of these drones eventually taking out an airliner is pretty high. There’s a lot of commerce out there relying on them — and for good reason — but they’re very complex machines,” he said. “The next step will probably be licensing.”
If things go that route, Altitude Filmworks is almost certain to sign up. It already has a commitment to safety, and even avoids flying near crowds despite the demand for such shots.
“When I see videos of guys buzzing over concerts, I just cringe,” McNally said.
It’s just that sort of blasé approach that has led to public misconceptions about drones.
“You get a mix of indifference, fascination and people who are repulsed or afraid of them,” McNally said. “Usually, people are amazed at how limited our capabilities really are. I think there’s an inflated perception of the capabilities of these machines.”
One of the major concerns McNally hears relates to privacy, but given the amount of noise and line-of-sight limitations, he doesn’t think they’re a game changer.
“You could be a better spy with a good telephoto lens than with most of these drones,” he said.
POTENTIAL SAFETY USES
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario has heard some similar concerns. While Mesa County looks at law enforcement applications for drones, he plans to give it a little more time.
“I think they’re a valuable tool. There’s a lot of non-criminal-law-related applications,” he said. “I just choose to let other people work out all the kinks and the bugs.”
Someday, he imagines using drones to assess house fires and wildfires without endangering a pilot, or to cover rough terrain for a search and rescue mission.
As for civilian use, he’s not too concerned.
“We haven’t had any complaints that I’m aware of,” he said. “It comes down to responsible use and responsible management.”
That attitude is becoming more common. Three years ago, McNally recalled, many people associated the word “drone” with the military’s MQ-1 Predator, and many operators of unmanned airborne vehicles hesitated to use the term at all. Now, people are more exposed to the their comparatively benign cousins like the Phantom.
“I think the public perception of the word is changing,” McNally said. “We embrace it anymore.”
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