Up, up and away: Drone businesses taking off

"'Drone' is a taboo word in the commercial world," agreed Badger, who with an Oregon partner owns Precision Unmanned Aerials. He added that UAV refers to just the aircraft alone, where as UAS would be the complete aircraft and all of the ground support involved in operating it.

There has been much debate about UAV registry.

Registration falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration, which, effective Aug. 29, 2016, passed Section 107, requiring any drone operator to register if the UAV weighs over about half a pound.

The FAA requires registration to help protect public safety, and no state or local law may relieve a drone owner of complying with the FAA.

Hobbyists who use UAVs recreationally do not have to become a certified pilot.

But it is a different story if you fly the device commercially.

If you fly one for work, you must have a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate, be 16 years of age and pass TSA vetting.

Eiermann, a newly certified UAV pilot in 2017, described the certification process.

"It is a certification, a certificate, not a full license. The test is called the Airman Knowledge Test and you receive a Small UAV Remote Pilot Certificate.

"You have to take an FAA exam at an approved testing center. I did mine in Augusta, Maine. The only one in New Hampshire is in Manchester," wrote Eiermann in an email after he and Simone filmed a wedding on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.

The exam is wide-ranging.

"It covers fundamentals of aerodynamics, national airspace systems, sectional charts, FAA remote pilot regulations, emergency procedures, risk management, aviation weather and so much more. It's quite comprehensive," Eiermann said.

"Most of my colleagues have taken online or in-person classes prior to taking the exam, and most put in about 20 hours of studying. It's no joke," he added.

In addition, "every two years, you have to renew your certificate. I took my online class through onlinegroundschool.com," said Eiermann.

So how did Eiermann of Dave Eiermann Woodworking — who videographs with his drone for Simone, founder of Meg Simone Wedding Films and co-founder of Relevant Workshop — get involved with UAVs?

"When UAVs hit the market, a lot of my colleagues in the filmmaking industry started to fly them to establish aerial landscape video to use in their films.

"Over the last few years, people have come to expect any film to have some form of aerial footage, so we became interested in including those stunning visuals as a way to elevate our productions — no pun intended," said Eiermann.

Eiermann uses a DJI Mavic Pro, which he says shoots 4K (high resolution) video, is very compact and perfect for their needs. He and Simone travel a lot.

"The price point is awesome for what it offers," said Eiermann, who said colleagues advised him to buy an inexpensive drone.

"The one thing everyone said was to buy a cheap drone, $60 on Amazon that has no GPS or hovering capabilities, and if you can master flying that, you can fly anything.

"Like everyone says, it's not 'if' you crash your drone it's 'when,' so practice, practice, practice," he said.

Eiermann talks about what it is like to fly a UAV.

"It is multisensory, you have to be aware of so many things, where you are in space, your height, your speed, your proximity to other things and objects. It's a lot of multitasking, all while being creative capturing stunning imagery for your clients," he said.

Marcoux and Leach, who are also professional photographers, got their start in a different way.

They met at the former Spectrum Photo in North Conway. Leach-Richards developed Marcoux's wedding pictures.

Marcoux built his first drone from scratch in 2010 and shared his enthusiasm with Leach-Richards.

"Roger showed me the drone. We thought we could do something with that and may regret it if we don't," said Leach-Richards

"When we started, there were no rules," Marcoux said. "I had to do a lot of searching and found a blog that was in German, with lots of information."

"We know the first strain was started in Germany. Most people in the U.S. got them from California or Montana, but we got sparse information. I got some parts, the circuit boards from France and Germany (though he doesn't speak French or German), got the radio control from Scotland and carbon fiber from China," said Marcoux, who also has been flying radio control for 50 years.

"It took almost a year to build," said Leach-Richards.

"We still use the original one," said Marcoux, noting they operate with four UAVs. "We have updated the technology — you had to use goggles and an arm pad. Now with virtual reality, everything has changed, you now monitor it using an iPhone. The smallest UAVs fit into your pocket."

DragonFly Aerials LLC spans a variety of businesses, including real estate, agricultural, homeowners, golf courses and lodging properties.

"We have done every golf course here except one," said Marcoux. "We do videos for trade shows, we work with agriculture. Farmers are the best people to work for, such good people."

Marcoux talked about their most unusual assignment. "It was a baptism in the Saco River last summer. They loved it, (and) we plan to do it again this summer," he said.

"The UAV is a platform to get pictures no one else can," added Leach-Richards, noting they have done sight evaluations, toxic waste spots to help keep citizens informed and geo- reference sampling. "We can shoot for a homeowner for about $300," she added.

"DragonFly took an aerial for a elderly Lancaster homeowner, who wasn't able to get out of his home to see his property," added Marcoux.

Then there was the steeple. "We can inspect church steeples up close without having to climb up the steeple. We even took aerials inside, too. A church came to us to record the service," said Marcoux.

Over the years, as technology advanced, drones have downsized.

"They are getting smaller and smaller and are more quiet," said Marcoux. "They are equipped with accident avoidance collision. If you are flying over deep snow, it beeps."

He noted there is some confusion over the privacy issue. "We use a wide-angle lens and can't see into someone's house," he explained.

"UAVs do a lot of amazing things — helping with search and rescue, helping Fish and Game, flying over fires to find hot spots. We love to be a part of this whole industry," said Leach- Richards.

Jesse Badger, whose company Precision Unmanned Aerial, works with agriculture, aggregates, construction and utilities, said: "The field is new and exciting and hard-fought, too.

"It is exciting to be here. There is so much technology in other parts of the country. But right here, we have our local Green Thumb Farm and look at how they are progressive in the use of UAV tech," said Badger, a former merchant marine and helicopter pilot.

Badger, who started his business with a partner who is in Oregon, talks about the growing possibilities with agriculture and seeing crops in a new light.

"I was a helicopter pilot and wanted to do something. I started Precision in 2013.

"My partner and I had worked in commercial aviation. We have extensive backgrounds working with the FAA and could navigate our way," said Badger, who was certified in 2014, becoming one of the first 100 operators in the country to do so.

"The use of UAVs has exploded in the last 18 to 24 months," he added.

"Agricultural disease and pests are the fun stuff — we get excited about large agricultural surveys. We are one of the largest in the country," said Badger who has 20,000 acres under contract in Aroostook County, Maine.

Badger works closely with farmers.

"We sit down with the growers and figure out a price. We get one shot. We have to deliver what we say," he said. "If the growers are looking for blight on potato farms, the sooner we can spot it, the less damage there is.

"UAVs are less expensive and more accurate than manned aircraft," he added.

Drones can also map the farms.

"We use a 20K multi-spec camera, and we look at specific wave lengths. We mapped a 200-acre farm in Texas and took 6,400 photos. The software puts this into one image," he said, noting that the detailed image shows the chlorophyll level and any issues with aphids.

"We are excited to be on the cutting edge and putting this to use to see disease detection," said Badger.

It's not always easy, though. Mapping with a drone commercially demands certain specific weather conditions.

"It must be a completely sunny or completely overcast day — no partly cloudy. A single cloud can ruin the shot. The wind can be up to 25 knots. The aircraft is two fixed wings with about a 3½-foot wing span," he said.

The automated software system creates a grid over the field. Images are taken at intervals, first one way then the other. Badger said that for a 100-acre plot there are about 700 images.

"People are unaware that agriculture may be a billion-dollar industry. You go to the growers and say, 'We can save you money. We can rescue your crops. If there was a drought last year, we can look with the aerials and see which plants are drinking and which are not. You can tell the stressed areas.' If you walk the fields or fly over (manned), it is like night and day with UAVs, " said Badger.

Badger learned on the job.

"I didn't have any background in agriculture. I had to learn and self-educate. I did two years for free at Green Thumb to help discover what would be the most beneficial and helpful," he said.

Technology is filling a void on the farms.

"Farmers were losing sons and daughters from their fields (to other professions)," said Badger. "It wasn't cool to be a farmer. Now, with more tech, it is cool again. Tractors and equipment are intelligent and talk to one another."

Badger says it has been a hard-fought journey to become a commercial drone operator.

"Early in the field, it took some time to get growers to sign contracts. But we have a positive impact on the environment. Farmers will be able to put down less pesticides and fertilizers ,and avoid damaging water," he added.

In the utility business, it was also challenging to forgo traditional ways. PUA works with thermal mapping and conductor stringing process.

"Working with the utilities is one thing we pioneered," Badger said. "Instead of using a helicopter to run lines from tower to tower, we can use a heavy lift drone. It is low impact, safer, cheaper, saves money and time."

Badger said his company "can look at storm responses and see any damage by using zoom and thermal cameras. We can show dead vegetation before the next storm. When I fly utility, I know what level of insurance I need and the use of air space," he added.

All agree this is serious business.

"Being a fully insured and FAA-certified UAV pilot is a serious responsibility," said Eiermann.

"Where we fly, we have to be aware of airports, no-fly zones, power lines, wind, safety concerns and so much more. I always fly with a visual observer, as I want to have a successful flight and not endanger anyone on the ground or in the air," he said.

And what about the future of UAVs?

"We are expanding and will bring cool tech jobs to the valley, along with new drone technology to Conway," said Badger.

Badger will be speaking at the New England UAS Conference: Navigating Your Airspace: Drone Application for Business to be held Aug. 2-4 at the University of Maine at Augusta. Badger's topic will be "Precision Agriculture."

Eiermann predicts UAVs are going to become more prolific in commercial uses, such as delivery services and search and rescue.

"And they are developing use of UAVs in avalanche mitigation, just to name a few. The sky is the limit," said Eiermann.