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Once fraught with militaristic associations, consumer unmanned aircraft — better known as drones — are becoming a big part of small business

 

Less than three years ago, if asked what the word “drone” brought to mind, the average American likely pictured eye-in-the-sky surveillance and Predators dropping missiles. Those strong military associations kept many in the burgeoning small unmanned aircraft industry from saying the word at all. At the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in 2013, the Wi-Fi password — a reminder to journalists — was “DontSayDrones.” But now that you can walk into any mall and buy an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for your kid to fly, “drone” has won out.

Most recreational drones look like miniature, multirotor helicopters with tiny mounted cameras, and these days they’re more likely to elicit curiosity than fear. While public concerns persist, they mainly center around privacy. Regulation has been lacking — though evolving somewhat — for the last several years. In December 2015, rules became clearer for hobbyists, but the Federal Aviation Administration’s continued prohibition of unapproved commercial uses kept most businesses treading cautiously. Until now.
 

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Paul Quimby '08 and his business partner conducted field tests of their drone software in New Zealand.

 
This August, new and long-awaited FAA regulations opened the doors to any number of drone-related businesses, from crop surveillance to filmmaking to emergency response. One entrepreneur who anticipated the shift is Paul Quimby ’08, who cofounded Converge Industries, which helps insurance companies manage the end-to-end workflow around drones in building inspections with little formal training required. Converge’s software allows the drones not merely to hover above but to fly down in and around buildings, making inspections safer, more accurate, and up to 10 times faster than with conventional methods such as cherry pickers and ladders. “We’ve made it really easy for this population of experts to use a drone as another tool,” Quimby says. “It’s not about needing to inject a third party who is a skilled user.”

Converge participated in the startup accelerator Techstar’s class of 2016 in Boulder, Colo., before moving to the Bay Area. Now the company contracts with leading insurance carriers. “It’s certainly been an interesting time to be involved in a market that we knew was about to explode,” Quimby says. In the year before Converge’s launch, the proportion of Fortune 500 property insurers adopting drones rose from nearly zero to more than 70 percent. “This old industry’s outlook on technology is significantly more progressive than I think most people assume,” Quimby says.

Like small drones themselves, Converge Industries is an outgrowth of military research. Quimby worked at United Technologies Research Center on Sikorsky’s unmanned Black Hawk helicopter; at MIT’s classified Lincoln Laboratory on an autonomous driving system; and earlier, at MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab. When he met his Converge cofounder David Pitman at MIT in 2009 — Pitman was a graduate student, Quimby an undergrad — they were developing military technology. At the time, the most-requested resource from all of the armed forces was Predator aircraft camera time — people wanted to see what was going on in a particular location, live. Unable to meet the demand, the Department of Defense investigated alternatives for aerial imagery. One was Quimby and Pitman’s project: a tool for navigating urban environments in real time — for example, in Baghdad, where roads might be clear one day and obstructed the next. Although their research was expensive, and the wireless-products manufacturer Parrot had yet to launch the first widely available consumer UAV, Quimby and Pitman envisioned an aerial kit that could be carried in a backpack and assembled on site, and they built the world’s first mobile app to fly a drone.
 

Converge’s software allows the drones not merely to hover above but to fly down in and around buildings, making inspections safer, more accurate, and up to 10 times faster.
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Paul Quimby ’08 conducting drone tests

 

Their formal human-subject studies proved invaluable for their later collaboration. They gave around 100 participants drones and brief instructions before observing how well they could fly the machines using a novel interface. “We were trying to demonstrate that the training threshold didn’t need to be that of a normal pilot’s,” Quimby says. At that time, the military required in-jet cockpit hours for flying UAVs. At an investment of roughly $11 million in training per pilot, the model wasn’t sustainable. “When we looked at what it was going to take to do this in the future,” Quimby says, “one of the obvious things was low-cost hardware, but we also needed a much, much simpler experience for the user.”

Quimby and Pitman built on their research for years, making contacts in the industry and attending UAV conventions and academic conferences. They waited for the cost of equipment to drop, identified their market, and hoped for a regulatory environment permissive enough to allow them to operate. Most other national civil aviation authorities had issued rules, while the United States still lacked a framework for commercial operation. When that didn’t materialize quickly enough, they headed to New Zealand for research and development. Today the public perception in America had shifted so much that people barely even notice their drones during flight tests.

Converge’s service includes keeping up with regulations to make it easy for insurance companies to fly legally, and Quimby has spent the past several years explaining the nitty-gritty rules of drone use for businesses to his clients. Attempting to predict which way the winds will shift in a fledgling regulatory environment, he has sent regular investor updates about the FAA’s next steps toward opening the floodgates for UAVs in any number of businesses.
 

 

Drones in Aerial Photography

 

 
If you haven’t flown a drone, you might assume it’s more complicated than it is. While early consumer models required rigging up cameras and separate communication devices, hobbyist drones today are plug-and-play. You connect them to a smartphone or tablet, which controls navigation and displays the camera view. Newer models have anticollision sensors and automatic lens correction. By locking onto GPS satellites, much of their flight pattern can be automated — takeoff, landing, even returning to the point of origin. In the air, they can hover in place, self-adjusting for wind gusts, and their wide-angle camera lenses take surprisingly sharp landscape photos and video.
 

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Fly fishing from an aerial perspective

 

The use of smartphone may have devalued photographers’ work, but aerial photography has expanded Peter Michaelis’ options.
For photographer Peter Michaelis ’74, flying his drone is part of the fun. Mostly he takes pictures of estates, but he’s shot golf courses, polo matches, and fireworks using his camera in the sky. He even once photographed a friend’s boat rounding the horn of Manhattan — from onboard, as they moved up the Hudson. It takes a bit of talent to fly and retrieve the drone, especially in an area of New York where trees can be 150 to 200 feet tall. Power lines, too, can be hazardous. But Michaelis has no problem staying below the 400-foot limit for both recreational and commercial drone flights: The best perspective is usually around 125 feet. “It’s similar to shooting from a hot air balloon,” he says. “They fly low for a better view.” For him, the hardest parts have been learning how to reprogram the drone and keeping up with technological advances.

A DJI Phantom 4, which is what Michaelis uses, costs under $1,500 — around $2,000 if you include a case and extra batteries and blades — and prices look likely to continue to drop. Despite the increasing ubiquity of drones, Michaelis predicts the strong market for aerial photography will continue. “Everyone has an iPhone now and takes unlimited photographs,” he says. “That trend has devalued photographers’ work, but aerial photography has expanded my options for selling individual pictures in addition to being hired for events.” It’s become a large part of his business.

Michaelis is pleased with the new regulations allowing commercial use, though he remains frustrated by irresponsible operators. “It’s unfortunate that some people are doing stupid stuff, like flying over — or crashing into — stadiums, invading airspace near airports, or even buzzing an NYPD helicopter,” he says. “A few people taking stupid risks are giving drone users a bad name. But it’s not complicated to fly if used right.”
 

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LEFT: Peter Michaelis ’74 used a drone to capture this unique perspective of Manhattan from the Hudson River.
RIGHT: From an elevated perspective, drone photos can showcase properties as well as their settings.

 

Like Michaelis, Caroline Ballard ’72 and her husband, Jerry Smith, came to drone photography wanting good photos from the air. Both realtors at the time, they conceived their business, Over and Above Photography, in 2008, thinking they could take better photos than most used to sell homes. Before drones were available and affordable, they tried other solutions: helium blimps and extendable masts, which were hard to use in the windy mountains of Vermont, where they are based. Now retired from real estate, they operate DJI Inspire drones to photograph stately houses for their owners. To free up Smith to navigate using his iPad, Ballard controls the camera from a second device. As with similar drones, they’re limited to flights of around 20 minutes on one battery, but that’s as much time as they generally need.

What caused them trepidation was trying to build their business while commercial uses were still prohibited. They had applied for authorization from the FAA but joined a backlog of thousands of applicants while exemptions were being granted only to pilots. “That’s a specialized skill set that’s not really needed for the kind of operation we’re running,” Ballard says. Conscientious about following all regulations for recreational use, they worked for clients only on their own properties and with permission from neighbors, but their murky legal status prevented them from bidding on larger commercial and government jobs. “There are tremendous benefits to being legal now,” Ballard says.

‘There are tremendous benefits to being legal now.’

—Caroline Ballard ’72

It’s a bit of a sore point that the new rules require more from them than from amateurs. “We have greater experience and expertise, as well as more expensive equipment to protect,” Smith says. “Naturally we’re more cautious as operators than an enthusiast who loses a drone on its first flight.” He and Ballard see privacy as very important but feel that most concerns are already addressed by regulations on any sort of photography or trespassing. “With new technology, people don’t understand its limitations,” Smith says. “Our wide-angle cameras aren’t equipped with lenses suitable for close pictures.” Like Michaelis and Quimby, he emphasized the impossibility of a drone’s sneaking up on anyone — they’re far from quiet.

“We just want to continue learning,” Ballard says. “We’re not trying to run a huge business. We’re doing this because we like it.”
 

 

A Brief History of Drone Regulation

 

 
If Quimby could design a U.S. government course, he’d have students examine the history of commercial drone regulation, which includes just one piece of legislation and a handful of court cases. After a couple of years of rapid technological innovation that brought drones within reach of recreational users and businesses alike, the FAA, in delaying issuing rules, suddenly seemed to be halting progress. Congress stipulated in 2012 that a path be cleared for commercial UAV use, but it took years to establish the framework — Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations — that finally took effect this August. In the meantime, the regulatory environment was shaped by conflicting opinions on exactly what a UAV is — an aircraft, which would then be treated like any other under FAA jurisdiction, or a model airplane, which wouldn’t be. Court cases ruled both ways; now drones are considered aircraft, with their own special status within FAA regulations, and shooting one down is a federal violation. “If anybody wants a great field of law to go into,” Quimby says, “this is a specialty that’s going to be around for a while.”
 

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Same scene, different view: Students and faculty looked up at CA’s DJI Phantom 4 drone while it documented the Quad’s reopening in September.

 

Until this summer, due to FAA-issued warnings commercial use of drones was essentially prohibited, although no law had been passed to that effect. In December 2015, new hobbyist guidelines made the situation even less clear for businesses. “You could say, ‘I’m authorized to do this as long as I’m having fun, but the moment someone pays me a dollar, the same vehicle doing the same things in the same place is now suddenly, by random writing of nasty letters, illegal,” Quimby says. “This has been a mess of a situation. No one has been happy with this process. It’s caused a lot of people to be yelling and screaming at the same time to speed up and slow down.”

Prior to the latest regulations, the only legal way to fly a drone for business was to obtain a Section 333 exemption from the FAA — a process of Catch-22 surreality. As Quimby says, it became “an instantly impossible situation,” because UAV operators were applying for exemptions from rules designed for manned aircraft. For example, applicants requested relief from two requirements: an aircraft manual in the cockpit (many drones don’t have cockpits, and manuals can weigh more than drones) and tail numbering in one-foot high letters (larger than the vehicle). “A Section 333 exemption that permits operation was basically a list of the completely unintended side effects of conventional aircraft rules being applied to this new class of vehicle that didn’t fit,” Quimby says. The new Part 107 regulations for small unmanned aircraft allow commercial use of drones under 55 pounds in unrestricted airspace, only during daylight and within line of sight of the operator, who must obtain a certification of aeronautical knowledge. The situation is clearer than it’s ever been, although a direct mandate from Congress might still alter the landscape at any time.

Small-business owners aren’t grumbling as much now. “I think everyone is just very glad that we moved from no sort of regulation to a system that can be amended,” Quimby says. The restriction to line-of-sight operations will be the next domino to fall — eventually. This limitation precludes neighborhood-level surveillance and advances such as real-time mapping. It’s a sticking point that has sent companies like Amazon, which has been pursuing drone delivery for years, to more welcoming regulatory environments in Europe. But the framework now in place has given a green light to Converge Industries, aerial photography studios, and many other small businesses using UAVs to take to the skies.
 

Photography: Ben Carmichael ’01, Peter Michaelis’74, Paul Quimby’08

 

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE:

Aerial photos and video and a timeline of drone regulation in the U.S.

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