Business taking flight
Miami Valley companies large and small put Remotely Piloted Aircraft to work for customers
When unmanned aerial vehicles take flight these days, an entrepreneur of some kind is often at the controls.
Get used to it. Of the first 1,000 Federal Aviation Administration permits to businesses to fly UAVs — also sometimes called “Remotely Piloted Aircraft” — commercial operators could be found in 49 states, according to a report this year by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
And most of those commercial operators — an “overwhelming 85 percent,” according to Fortune magazine — are small businesses.
According to the AUVSI in a 2013 report, in the first three years of integrating UAVs into the national air-space system, more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the United States with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion.
That will grow through 2025 to more than 100,000 jobs created and economic impact of $82 billion, the association believes.
Here’s a look at five local companies using UAVs to strengthen business and work with customers.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then what’s the value of a picture from an airborne UAV?
Construction today sometimes means flying, to see what can only be seen from above. Crews and clients often need to that perspective to make key decisions.
In its work on the new Dayton Children’s Hospital eight-story tower, Danis Construction is using UAVs to make construction videos to share with hospital leaders and patients.
“They have seen the power of those visuals,” said Aaron Phillips, Danis director of virtual design and construction.
Danis starting using UAVs in the spring of 2014. Phillips was on a project site with a colleague and drones— specifically four-rotor quad copters — came up in conversation.
Before securing a COA (FAA certificate of authorization) in April 2015, Danis bought a small four-rotor vehicle and flew on property it owns around its Miami Twp. offices, getting a feel for the technology.
“We just wanted to make sure,if we were going to do this, we’re doing to do this a right way,” said Troy Erbes, Danis vice president. “Because there was a lot of bad press about people flying it (UAVs) and not really knowing what they’re doing.”
What do UAVs let a construction company like Danis do that it couldn’t before? A “multitude” of things,Phillips said.
Remotely piloted aircraft can be used for aerial photography and inspections without endangering workers.Clients and workers in the field can see images of a work site.
“We’re able to show them their project in ways they could never have seen,” Phillips said. “Flying a plane around with a telephoto lens pales in comparison to what (pilot) Rob (Mauro) can do very close to objects.”
Recently, Mauro — a retired Marine pilot and today director of UAV operations for Danis — was able to fly a UAV to inspect parts of the famed University of Dayton chapel dome, looking at its cupola and cross, Erbes said.
“You can get a piece of equipment, get a lift, get a man up there, but then, that’s cost, that’s time and that’s a safety issue,” Erbes said. “Whereas Rob can sit there there and do his pre-plan, and then go out there and execute it, and all of a sudden we have instantaneous information.”
Danis is pleased with UAVs so far, but Erbes said the company isn’t going to force their use. He acknowledges that it doesn’t always make sense to fly UAVs.
“That’s perfectly fine with us,” Mauro said. “We’re still building a building.”
“We’re not looking to make this a business line for us,” Erbes said.
In many ways, Woolpert is a Miami Valley trailblazer in the realm of UAVs.
The Beavercreek precision surveying and infrastructure engineering firm was the first Dayton business to secure a Federal Aviation Administration Section 333 exemption to fly UAVs for business.
“We’re definitely on the leading edge,” said Jeff Lovin, Woolpert senior vice president and director of geospatial services. “And sometimes the bleeding edge.”
The company has offered aerial surveying for customers for half a century. For those needs, Woolpert has long relied on a fleet of large piloted aircraft.
But about three years ago, Woolpert leaders starting exploring UAVs. What they saw showed promise.
“I believe that within the next 20 years or so, a majority, a lot of Woolpert’s aerial data collection could be unmanned,” Lovin said.
He looks for the FAA to slowly allow businesses to fly larger UAVs (heavier than the current 55-pound limit) and to allow the UAVs themselves to fly higher, Lovin said.
Once that happens — “That’s when it will really matter,” he said.
Not that UAVs don’t matter today, he added. Clients like their speed and how relatively inexpensive they are. Research gained now will bolster not just UAV development but the power of sensors, too, he said. Companies like Woolpert fly in order to see better, so sensor technology is paramount.
“That’s why we put so much work into it,” Lovin said.
Woolpert’s niche is high-accuracy, survey-grade images that serve governments and clients in big projects.
Operationally, flying UAVs is less expensive than flying a large Cessna, Lovin said. But if Woolpert needs to collect thousands of one-centimeter resolution images over an area larger than a half a square mile, larger piloted airplanes may be more suitable, he said.
And FAA regulations can be a “limiting factor,” Lovin acknowledged. The government requires UAV users to fly within the natural line of sight of observers — no binoculars or telescopes allowed —and below a 500-foot ceiling. Woolpert has a blanket COA to fly nationwide under 200 feet, he said.
UAVs are here to stay, he believes.
“We’re seeing it fit into our business models,” Lovin said.
Frank Beafore, executive director of the SelectTech GeoSpatial at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport, is frustrated.
He thinks the Dayton region has all the pieces to be at or near the center of the small UAS industry. But first, he argues, the federal government needs to enshrine into law rules proposed last February governing small UAVs.
He calls that delay “the crux” of what’s holding back the domestic UAV industry.
“The proposal is excellent,” Beafore said. “I can live with that proposal. It’s a great proposal.”
Herb Stachler, former special projects coordinator for Sinclair Community College, and a mechanical engineer who says he has built UAVs, shares the same frustration.
He does not see the UAV industry truly thriving until federal regulations are established and understood. And he questions job projections — such as AUVSI’s — until that happens.
“The numbers are so wrong for so many reasons because they are so dependent on the federal government doing so many things,” said Stachler, now retired.
Today, there are just over 1,400 FAA Section 333 exemptions allow commercial use of UAVs nationwide.That’s not nearly enough, as far as Beafore is concerned.
Recently, SelectTech applied to the government for its second 333 exemption for sensor analysis and testing. He expects a wait of at least four to five months
Other nations are passing the United States in UAV production and use, Beafore warns — Germany and China among them.
SelectTech makes UAVs for public and private customers in Springfield. The Air Force often sends his birds aloft with serious sensor technology attached.
Demand is growing, he said. And he dismisses the idea that the UAV arena is of interest only to pilots or hobbyists; everyone has an interest in UAVs, he argues.
“These are pick-up trucks that haul very important sensors,” Beafore said. “These sensors can do all kinds of things to help mankind. The obvious is fire department support and police department support.”
UAVs can inspect power lines and energy infrastructure, pinpoint issues in agriculture, detect thermal leaks in buildings and a lot more, he said.
“I do believe that once these things launch, we are going to hear of applications of UAVs that we can’t even think of today,” Beafore said.
Who buys UAVs and parts from Dayton Drone’s stores?
“Everyone,” said Jay Day,Dayton Drones owner. “Moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas. And kids like to play,too.”
Customers go to Dayton Drones for UAVs, parts, flight instruction and repairs, and other services Day says online retailers don’t offer.
Day has stores in the Dayton Mall, Traders World in Lebanon, in Savannah, Ga. and a store soon to open at the Mall at Fairfield Commons in Beavercreek. He has 12 employees total.
With 3-D printers, he builds small, non-commercial multi-rotor drones and teaches customers how to fly them. He and his staff also fly them for entertainment at birthday parties.
The Dayton Mall store has an indoor flying area. Day has also opened a photography and recording studio next to that store to help UAV users complete and finesse videos recorded from the air.
The studio allows the recording and editing of music and voice-overs to accompany aerial shots. Day said he invested about $100,000 into the studio, which also has space for commercial photography.
UAV and equipment prices at Dayton Drones range from $39.99 for a small Wltoys V676 six-axis gyro to $2,900 for a ZenMuse Z15 with 3-axis gimbal.
Day expects sales to firm up around Christmas. He plans to order 100 motorized skateboards that use brushless motor technology similar to the magnet-driven motors found on some UAVs.
“It’s definitely not going to hurt us,” Day said of the upcoming shopping season. “We do a lot better at Christmas than we do at any other time of the year.
Local filmmaker Allen Farst has used unmanned vehicles to make commercials for Hyundai dealers and law firms,to shoot games at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, auto races and a lot more.
“I was always chasing a Hollywood shot, always,” Farst said. “That meant you had to have the gear. You had to have talent, and you had to have equipment to get it done.”
In 2013, Farst bought what he said at the time was the first 12-blade heavy lift drone in the United States from Intuitive Aerial, of Sweden. The vehicle had a full function gimbal and could lift up to 20 pounds, sturdy enough to carry a digital camera.
The idea was to save money, where possible. He estimates that he has spent nearly $100,000 on UAV and related equipment, but it’s less expensive over time than repeatedly renting an airplane or a gimbal-equipped helicopter and a pilot, he estimates.
“Long term, this saves you money,” Farst said. “If you did it that way, you’re talking at least $25,000 a day for a helicopter, A-star gimbal, pilot, putting people in hotels.”
Dayton-area Section 333 exemptions
Sinclair Community College, Dayton: Educational research and training
Woolpert, Beavercreek: Precision aerial surveying
Danis Building Construction, Miami Twp.: Aerial inspection of construction areas.
Drones That Work LLC, West Carrollton: Aerial inspection of elevated structures.
Dennis M. Fisher, Springboro: Aerial photography and videography.
Rise Above Images LLC, Hamilton: Aerial photography and videography.
Skyward, Dayton: Data collection.
SelectTech GeoSpatial, Springfield: UAV testing and building.
US Aerobotix LLC, Gettysburg: Aerial photography and inspection.
3D Aerial Solutions, Dayton: precision agriculture.
Sources: FAA, Ohio Department of Transportation, sUAS News, businesses.