Are drones a fad or are they the future? Unmanned aircraft systems are here to stay, Bob Gonsalves told a meeting of boating writers after they had oohed and aahed at a drone flying around the room at the Miami International Boat Show in February.
“It’s going to go into all industries,” predicts Gonsalves, chief operating officer of the United States Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers, which is based in Marietta, Ga. “All industries are going to use some kind of drone or robot in their business.”
Oil pipeline operators. Oil exploration companies. Agribusiness. Real estate. Insurance companies. Hollywood filmmakers. And, yes, the boating business — boating magazines, boating websites, boat manufacturers’ marketing departments, boat dealers, accessory makers, charter-boat operators, boating resorts — anyone, really, who wants to showcase a product or service from a bird’s point of view.
It’s cheaper and smaller than a helicopter, easier to deploy, and it can drop down as low as you want to go (the maximum altitude is 500 feet). “It’s a great tool,” says Paul Morris, director of photography at Miami Aerial, which has done aerial photography and videography of boats for the Ferretti Group and Mirage Yachts.
Just a week after the boating writers’ meeting, the Federal Aviation Administration released its proposed rule for small “low-risk” commercial drones. Once adopted, it should clear the way for wider use of drones that weigh less than 55 pounds.
Morris says a small commercial drone designed for videography costs $1,000 to $1,200. The more motors (and rotors), the better. One of his had eight rotors, which provide better lift, better stability and redundancy if a motor fails. One limitation of the current models is battery life, which is about 15 minutes, so the operator has to think ahead and be ready to land the drone to switch out batteries.
“Flight time is a big consideration for us,” Morris says. “We have to gauge how long it’s going to take.”
Considering the amount of time needed to take off and land, the operator may have just 5 to 7 minutes near the subject, so the shoot has to be carefully planned and executed. “It’s all about weight and payload,” he says — the heavier the gear on the drones, the shorter the flight time. “It’s a trade-off.”
Drones are GPS-aware. “They know where they are in airspace, relative to you,” he says.
In a typical boat photo shoot, the drone may launch and land on a floating dock or chase boat, or on land. A videography crew usually numbers three — the pilot, who flies the drone; the photographer, who controls the camera; and a spotter, who keeps an eye on the drone and its surroundings so there are no accidents or intrusions on privacy.
The proposed FAA rules for commercial drones restrict flight to below 500 feet and require them to remain within sight of the operator. Operators would have to get a permit and pass a $150 test of their knowledge every 24 months, but they would not need a pilot’s license.
A drone could only fly from sunrise to sunset and would not be permitted to fly over people not directly involved in its use. It would be barred from flying near airports, in restricted air space and faster than 100 mph.
The proposed rule exempts micro-models — those weighing 4.4 pounds or less — from the prohibition on flying over people not involved in the flight. The rules do not affect recreational drones, which are as yet unregulated.
The cost of hiring a drone crew for half a day ranges from about $800 for a small, simple system to a couple thousand dollars for a more sophisticated one, Morris says.
He says his company has a liability policy that protects him and his clients. “It’s essential. You can’t operate without that.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue.