Lake Tahoe drone company surveys skies as feds work on regulation
INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — On a clear Saturday earlier this month, Lloyd Garden pilots a remote-controlled, camera-outfitted aircraft near the clear waters of Lake Tahoe.
He’s flying a drone, and such devices are seeing increased use across the country — while the Federal Aviation Administration struggles to regulate commercial operation.
“I really think it’s that unique perspective that nobody has ever seen before,” said Garden, who, along with Brad Flora, owns Incline Village-based Drone Promotions, which officially launched December 2013. “It’s kind of flying in unseen territory.”
That makes it an attractive tool, especially since in recent years the cost of drones has decreased significantly. Garden said the drone he and Flora uses — a DJI Phantom 2 — retails for about $950; along with add-ons, their drone has a value of $2,500.
“The price for using drones has come down enough that events like ours can budget this unique footage into our event,” said Chelsea Walterscheid, event manager for Truckee Thursdays, which recently hired Drone Promotions’ services. “It brings in a new angle and a fresh view of the event, which is not only fun for everyone to watch, but is helpful as event coordinators to see how things are working.”
Among other uses, the technology has helped local real estate officials showcase houses for sale.
“It’s definitely helpful because we can get those shots that would otherwise be unobtainable and capture Incline Village and the surrounding area,” said Sam Marquardt, administrative assistant for RE/MAX North Lake in Incline Village, referring to houses in densely wooded areas or on top of mountains.
Other uses include search and rescues, environmental research, wildlife monitoring and agriculture operations.
While the FAA does not require approval for those who fly drones recreationally, using them for commercial purposes is a different matter.
All unmanned aircraft system operations for commercial or business purposes are subject to federal regulation. At a minimum, any such flights require a certified aircraft and a certificated pilot.
Until recently, only two unmanned aircraft system models (the Scan Eagle and Aerovironment’s Puma) have been certified for commercial use and only authorized to fly in the Arctic.
Yet, last month, the FAA granted energy corporation BP Global use of a Puma drone to survey pipelines, roads and equipment in Alaska.
Congress has mandated the FAA develop a plan for the “safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems” into national airspace by Sept. 30, 2015. The FAA is in the process of drafting formal rules for commercial use of drones 55 pounds or less.
“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” FAA administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement.
While the FAA works on establishing regulations, Garden and Flora continue to fly their drone recreationally, while selling their drone consulting services upon request.
It’s a form of operation that many other drone companies are using in the interim, Garden said.
“Commercial use is still a huge gray area,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be flying for commercial use, but you can sell your edited images, edited video.”
When asked for cost, Garden said it varies upon request.
The FAA’s effort to develop rules is one that Garden and Flora support.
“The analogy I think of is getting a driver’s license,” Flora said. “If there were no requirements to safety, it would be chaos on the road, and that’s how you can think of the air space. We want there to be rules and regulations, so we know we’re safe when we’re flying, and there’s no bad reputation for responsible drone pilots like we are.”
Safety precautions Garden and Flora take include not flying in no-fly zones, keeping the drone within sight and avoiding flying over the general public.
“We get a lot of questions about what are the rules and regulations,” Garden said. “‘Will I get in trouble for using this footage?’ Right now, no, you will not get in any trouble for using that footage.”
As for the future, Garden and Flora plan on expanding the business — following the flight path of drones themselves.
“I think right now it’s in an exponential growth rate,” Garden said. “There are constantly new ways of using the drone, and drone technology is ever expanding.”