Drones may have been originally developed for military use, but now they are one of the most sought-after tech toys. Millions of people now own their own unmanned aircraft and can operate it with little to no skill or experience. According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s website, more than 325,000 people have now registered their drones with the FAA, which is more than the 320,000 piloted aircrafts registered.
“You can take it and charge it and fly it — anyone can do it the way the technology is now,” said Allen Newland, a commercial drone operator who lives in Haywood County. “That’s part of the problem — they’re too easy to fly. But if you lose GPS connection, you have to be able to know what you’re doing.”
Technology to the rescue
Love them or hate them, drones have been beneficial. The military can use drones instead of placing soldiers on the ground in harm’s way. They are also much easier and cheaper to make, buy and maintain than piloted aircrafts.
Now that anyone can buy one, drones are now being used for recreational and commercial purposes. Aerial photography and videography are now in high demand as marketing tools for businesses, tourism agencies, economic development professionals and real estate brokers.
Rich Price, economic development director for Jackson County, said the Economic Development Commission hired ImageRhee Aerial Photography about six months ago to help develop a marketing video to place on the EDC’s website. The video, which he hopes will be ready to launch by spring, will include aerial video of Jackson County with the hopes of attracting new industries.
“It will be a showcase of the county from a business recruitment type perspective but will also show the unique topography and iconic images of Jackson County in a little bit of a different fashion from still photography,” Price said.
Aerial photography has been doing wonders for tourism promotion on social media. Video footage of the mountains — whether they are covered in fall colors or snow — seems to be going viral and making people long to be here.
Becky Seymour, video production and social media manager for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority, said the TDA is just beginning to delve into the aerial photography realm of marketing. Last year the TDA partnered with others on a project to pay for a helicopter crew to get aerial shots of Haywood County.
“The videos that have come out of this aerial footage have basically blown the minds of our marketing audience and locals alike,” Seymour said. “Looking at our mountains from the ground or even an overlook is breathtaking. However, a birds-eye view is a way to create an even more visually appealing marketing video.”
In the five years she has been doing video production for the TDA, Seymour said the recipe for success continues to evolve — and aerial footage is now a huge part of that recipe.
“It gives the consumer a sense of wonderment, and what’s great is you are using footage that is real, not special effects,” she said. “All it really boils down to is impressive cinematography, a good quad-copter pilot and a video editor that has experience and is highly creative while still producing what their target audience wants to see.”
While they’re saving lives overseas, drones can also be used to save lives here at home. Allen Newland, owner of A Shot Above Aerial Photography in Waynesville, is currently working to help develop the proper program and procedures to be able to utilize drones during search and rescue missions in Haywood County.
Under FAA regulations, operating a drone for search and rescue is possible but tricky. Areas where a search is taking place automatically become no-fly zones as helicopters may be in use. Being surrounded by national forest, where drones are prohibited from flying, makes it even more problematic for search and rescue crews.
Right now, a rescue squad would need to apply for an emergency Certificate of Airworthiness to use a specific drone during a specific mission. Newland said getting a COA could take days to obtain, but he hopes he can develop a set of procedures that helps streamline the process.
Recreational drone operator Joseph Massie is also a volunteer firefighter and a member of the Haywood County Search and Rescue Squad. He understands how drones could cause a problem during a mission, but can also see the potential benefits.
“Search and rescue is a very coordinated effort, so a drone could possibly become a problem for the team if several people are trying to fly them,” he said. “But it’s a shame I can’t use it, because there have been cases it could have made a difference in the mission.”
Drones can more easily comb a mountainside to locate someone in the dark or in more inclement weather. Using a drone for a rescue mission could drastically cut down on search hours, manpower and injuries.
Dangers of technology
As the old saying goes, sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. Technology, however advanced, still has the capability of failing or creating unintended consequences that humans have to navigate.
Newland said drone batteries were one of the biggest safety concerns. There’s been a lot in the news lately about the batteries in hoverboards exploding, and drones use the same type of batteries. But really the problem lies in operators not knowing how to properly care for the batteries. The battery has so much stored energy that it can explode if it’s damaged in any way.
“If not treated well, they can be dangerous,” Newland said. “It can melt asphalt. A responsible pilot has to understand that’s a risk — that’s why you don’t want to fly over people.”
For these reasons, commercial drone operators are supposed to steer clear from operating their drone over a populated area, just in case.
Some businesses have even adopted drone policies to address safety concerns. Cataloochee Ski Resort recently posted a drone policy on its website prohibiting any operation of drones by the media and general public without prior written authorization.
“Any violation of this policy may involve suspension of your skiing or snowboarding privileges, and/or the revocation of your season pass, as well as confiscation of any drone equipment, and may subject violators to any damages, including, but not limited to, damages for violations of privacy and/or physical or personal injuries or property damage, as well as regulatory fines and legal fees,” the policy states.
The National Park Service website also addresses drone usage in on federal land. As of June 2015, drones are prohibited inside the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park because administration felt they could be a danger to visitors and wildlife.
The use of drones for spying on private residents is often discussed, but Newland says it’s just a perpetuated myth. Yes, there are some industrial and government drones that can spy from hundreds of miles away with amazing cameras and lenses, but the consumer drones have cameras and lenses designed only for wide-angle action type of photography.
“Because of this limitation to see anything with any fine detail, the aircraft has to be fairly close, and at that distance the noise is mind-boggling and very attention-getting,” Newland said. “An off-the-shelf drone is possibly one of the worst spying devices you could use.”