The end of the near-ban on commercial drone operation has opened a flood of potential uses for the remote-controlled aircraft and sparked wider interest in piloting them for money.
New operators are being trained at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy and are taking license tests at knowledge testing centers, like the one at Richmor Aviation in Glenville.
Brian Piter, of SkyOp, which conducted the first training session in August for HVCC’s Workforce Development Institute, is gearing up for a second session starting Nov. 7.
“Drones are about to change all businesses,” Piter said. “What we’re seeing is, the advent of the new rules is causing this whole industry to explode right now.”
SkyOp is based in Canandaigua and is providing drone instruction at 10 community colleges in four states. People take the classes for three main reasons, Piter said: The most common students are managers of businesses who want to understand the uses and applications of drones. There also are entrepreneurs who want to start drone-based businesses, and there are people who want career options in what they see as a cutting-edge field.
(There are also a small number of really, really committed hobbyists — Introduction to Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems at HVCC requires 18 hours of study over eight days and costs $1,500. Quadcopter and controller are provided with tuition.)
In 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration all but banned commercial drone flights. Hobby flights remained legal, and many hobbyists likely got paid for some of their flights, but only licensed airplane pilots were supposed to be operating drones for commercial purposes, unless the FAA issued exemptions to individual operators.
On Aug. 29, the FAA expanded commercial drone operation to anyone holding one of its drone pilot licenses, creating new business for FAA-designated knowledge centers that administer the tests (Richmor is the only one in the Capital Region) and also for the people and programs that help would-be pilots prepare for them.
The test itself has very little to do with drone-flying skills.
“Eighty-five percent of it has nothing to do with drones,” Piter said. Mostly, he explained, it’s the same ground-school knowledge that pilots have to learn before they fly planes — radio frequencies, decision-making, how to read navigation charts and aircrew management. The logic is that this will allow drone pilots to more safely share the skies with airplanes and better communicate with air traffic controllers, if needed.
The ability to fly a drone isn’t tested — just the thought process and decision-making behind flying it. But SkyOp teaches flying, too — indoors, where weather and other hazards don’t interfere.
“When people come out of the class, they can fly without GPS and are true pilots,” Piter said.
Across the Capital Region, drones are already in use: most for fun, but some for business.
Ed Capovani’s In Sky Aerial Services is one of the commercial ventures. Capovani still works full time at Capovani Brothers, a scientific equipment dealer in Glenville, but is trying to build up In Sky Aerial in his off hours.
“I got into it a little over a year and a half ago, started out as a hobby and quickly saw the potential,” he said. “The obvious things are photography, videography. Things that are maybe not so obvious are surveying, mapping modeling.”
Capovani is one of those who could legally do commercial drone work before Aug. 29 — he’s a licensed airplane pilot.
He said he ran into so much competition for photography and videography jobs from unlicensed, uninsured hobbyists that he stopped pursuing that work. Instead, he’s focusing on industrial applications.
Capovani can inspect smokestacks and utility poles, map quarries and sand pits to show how much material is left to be extracted or hook up a forward-looking infrared scanner to find hot spots on power lines or air pockets under pavement.
“The more you think about it, the more applications that come up,” he said.
Capovani has been doing more demonstrations than actual jobs. He said the potential of drones has yet to be fully appreciated by many industries. “Right now, a lot of companies are trying to find the way.”
The paid work he has done has included inspecting construction work and mapping mine sites to determine volume of remaining material. Also, he has consulted with solar energy companies that want to do thermal imaging of their solar arrays and a law enforcement agency trying to set up its own drone program.
One of the drone hobbyists who’s dabbled in business applications with his flying machine is Tom Hoffman Jr., CEO of Hoffman Car Wash in Albany. He has posted some spectacular aerial videos of landscapes on his YouTube channel, especially of Lake George, but he has shot some footage of his businesses, too.
“I suppose it technically counts as commercial use if we take a picture of one of our car washes,” he said. “I don’t hire out and get paid for any of it.”
Hoffman said the new regulations are good, and the advances in technology are exciting.
“Collision avoidance and better software have dramatically improved safe flight,” he said.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Up in Saratoga Springs, Derek Hallquist works full time as visual marketing manager at Roohan Realty and runs his freelance business, Green River Pictures, part time. His DJI Inspire drone gets a lot of flight time at both.
He got his FAA drone license a few days after they became available, without taking a class but with a lot of studying, nonetheless.
“If you study, you can get into it relatively easily,” he said. “The FAA website gives you links to everything you need to know.”
Hallquist said the drone footage has been an excellent marketing tool for Roohan.
“It’s just expanded ways for people to become interested in property,” he explained, so he’s doing more drone imagery of Roohan’s listings. “We do property, residential and commercial listings — mostly the higher-priced ones, but sometimes some beautiful properties that aren’t as expensive.”
Drones provide a whole new perspective on houses for sale, he added. “Especially the people selling their homes — they’ve never seen their homes from that angle.”
Hallquist said safety should remain a top concern as the drone industry and its applications expand. He noted there have already been three houses he couldn’t shoot because of their proximity to airports.
“I hope all real estate firms and other businesses pay attention and fly safe as well,” he said. [“It’s] a wonderful technology that I would hate to see stopped if people don’t pay attention to safety.”
Piter at SkyOp said most commercial drone pilots are people who do something else for a living and have added drones to their skill set. There aren’t many whose full-time job is only flying drones.
That said, there are thousands more potential uses for drones, he said, some not even realized yet.
“It really goes across virtually everything, and it’s going to continue that way,” he said.
Reach Gazette Business Editor John Cropley at 395-3104, [email protected] or @cropjohn on Twitter.