To Paul Charbonnet, co-owner of Baton Rouge-based Atmosphere Aerial, drones represent freedom, the filmmaker’s creativity loosed, camera views and angles restricted only by imagination. The bird’s-eye view writ large.
“The unlimitedness of the shot is just incredible,” Charbonnet said.
The devices can fly closer to buildings or actors than a helicopter and at a fraction of the $10,000 or more it costs to hire a helicopter for a day.
Atmosphere Aerial is one of a growing number of firms the technology has launched. A search for “aerial” in the Louisiana Secretary of State’s website turns up at least 10 drone companies, most started in the last year or two.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that about 7,500 small drones may be in commercial use by 2018. It’s unclear how many people are already flying the devices just for fun. DIYDrones, an online community for hobbyists, has close to 59,000 members worldwide.
In a recent New York Magazine article titled “Drones and Everything After,” author Benjamin Wallace-Wells says the devices offer the gift of extreme elevation. “It makes you feel both alone and unsurpassable.”
The projections for drones’ financial potential are equally high-flown.
In Louisiana, the technology will generate an estimated economic impact of $213 million from 2015 to 2017, generating 1,097 jobs and tax revenue of $1.44 million, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The association, which boasts more than 7,000 individual and 600 corporate members, prefers that drones be called Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
An association study shows the devices will have a U.S. economic impact of $13.6 billion over their first three years of being integrated into the National Airspace System, which controls the country’s air traffic, according to the association. The economic impact will swell to more than $140 billion over the next 10 years.
“We’re talking about a plethora of applications, whether it starts with Arctic research, firefighting, flood monitoring, crop dusting, mining, farming, aerial photography, real estate, storm research, advanced security, port security, cargo, search and rescue, volcanic research or pipeline monitoring,” said Mario Mairena Sr., senior government relations manager for the association. “The list goes on and on.”
But the biggest piece of the market will be “precision agriculture,” which will account for about 80 percent of the U.S. market. The term covers remote sensing, such as scanning plants for health problems and water needs, and precision application, spraying pesticides or nutrients more efficiently and selectively.
Mairena said the United States lags far behind other countries when it comes to commercial uses for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
Yamaha Motor Corp.’s RMAX, a 9-foot-long remotely-operated helicopter, has been used to spray crops in Japan for more than 20 years. The copters fly slowly, 12 miles per hour or less, and no higher than 20 feet off the ground.
Integrating these and other devices into the National Airspace System will immediately result in an $11 billion economic impact in the U.S. agriculture industry, and $66 billion over the next decade, according to AUVSI. But that influence won’t happen until the FAA comes up with the regulations that govern the use of drones.
“Where we are now is there really aren’t any specific rules written for this technology in agriculture,” said Rogers Leonard, associate vice chancellor for the LSU AgCenter.
The FAA really only has two categories for aircraft: the remote-controlled devices that people fly as a hobby or commercial aircraft, like 747s. Drones don’t belong under either heading.
The agency is in the process of writing regulations for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The proposed rules are due this month, with the final version set for late 2015. The FAA’s current regulations don’t allow unmanned aircraft to be used for commercial purposes, although lots of filmmakers and others already do.
Leonard said using a UAS doesn’t necessarily mean a tremendous reduction in the amount of pesticide or fertilizer a farmer uses, but it will take out the guesswork. Farmers will be able to examine the crops and spray them at exactly the right time, rather than doing so in advance or after a larger problem has developed.
Being able to monitor the fields without having to go through them and take samples or drive around a field’s perimeter would be a tremendous benefit, Leonard said.
But the FAA prohibits flying model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes. Right now, farmers can’t legally fly a UAS over their fields to check if crops are being irrigated properly or to check for weed or insect problems.
Mairena said those limitations are costing the U.S. economy $10 billion a year. That’s $27.6 million a day.
Jon Purvis, owner of Fly Cam Aerial Cinematography in Metairie, said the current regulations make little sense.
The FAA says it’s OK to fly a UAS as long as a company doesn’t charge for the service, he said. The danger, or the safety, doesn’t increase if there’s no fee, and the FAA doesn’t really enforce the commercial use regulations.
FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the agency’s preferred approach to correction is education.
Typically that means an informal call or visit to explain the regulations, he said. The agency hasn’t assessed any civil penalties for commercial operations, only for “careless and reckless” flying.
“To me it’s a gray area that most people are just ignoring … Everybody’s doing it,” Purvis said.
Except when they’re not.
A lot of motion picture companies have been scared away by the FAA drone regulations because the companies don’t want to get into any trouble, Purvis said. The reluctance to cross the FAA has somewhat limited Fly Cam’s opportunities.
However, the FAA recently signaled it may be willing to relax the regulations for commercial drones. In late September, the agency gave exemptions to six filmmakers. Since then, dozens of other companies have applied. State Farm wants to use the devices to inspect policyholders’ roofs. Chevron USA wants to monitor oil and gas fields, platforms and refineries.
Purvis plans to apply for an exemption as well.
Phinizy Percy Jr., of Phin Percy Films in New Orleans, said regulations are needed, but the process could be as simple as getting a driver’s license.
There’s a certain amount of trust that goes with a license. Drivers expect each other to use common sense and follow the laws. The same sort of approach could work with drones.
A Louisiana Legislature-created study group has asked the FAA to let states regulate the devices along the same lines as crop dusters.
Crop dusters have to meet FAA rules for their planes’ airworthiness, Leonard said. But all the oversight after that is done at the state level through the Department of Agriculture and Forestry.
Atmosphere Aerial wants to specialize in agriculture and film services. Charbonnet’s partner, co-owner Charles Malveaux, a biological engineer and former LSU AgCenter researcher, handles the agriculture applications. Charbonnet concentrates on the film side. The company has worked on programs for the Travel Channel, filming attractions in New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, and recently got its first international gig in Morocco.
Charbonnet, like a lot of other enthusiasts, prefers the term UAS. Atmosphere Aerial’s equipment requires two people: one to fly the drone and another to operate the camera. Both require training.
And no matter what the device is called — drone, UAV, UAS — the learning curve is steep. It takes about 100 hours of practice to be competent.
“It’s one of those things you still need to know your stuff before you even get into it,” Charbonnet said. “People ask, ‘Can I buy one from Amazon and fly it?’ I tell them you’ll crash it a hundred times before you have one good flight.”
Charbonnet said aside from FAA regulations, the biggest obstacle the industry faces is that people don’t know much about the devices.
The term drone has built up a lot of negative connotations because of military use, Charbonnet said.
“All they mainly hear about is the terror of drones, that drones are trying to steal their privacy, drop stuff on them,” he said.
That fear prompted a proposed law that would have made it a crime in Louisiana to use drones for surveillance on private property. The bill failed during the most recent legislative session.
Charbonnet said that kind of privacy law isn’t necessary.
A multicopter like Atmosphere Aerial’s has six electric motors, which spin at thousands of revolutions per minute. The device buzzes like a window fan on steroids, and its downdraft is powerful enough to bend the grass 20 feet below.
“They are not quiet. I don’t know how you could ever sneak up on anyone,” Charbonnet said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter @tedgriggsbr.