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Sky’s the limit: Drone operators on front lines of an exciting new industry

coverEveryone enjoys the ground-level Western North Carolina views, but drones provide a whole new perspective on things. 

• Drone technology presents opportunities and challenges
• Drone operators navigate strict laws

With a gentle buzzing, these lightweight unmanned aircrafts are able to soar hundreds of feet into the air to capture some of the most breathtaking aerial shots of life here in the mountains. Tech-savvy entrepreneurs are starting to realize they can make a living out of capturing these images and video footage  enjoying the great outdoors themselves.

“Even though the drone is in the air taking photos, you still have to hike into some of these remote areas to get the shots — it’s an adventure,” said Alex Monsrud, a drone operator with ImageRhee Aerial Photography in Sylva. “It’s amazing how much we’ve learned on our own about the technology because we’re some of the first to be doing it professionally.”

Monsrud wasn’t sure what kind of job he would land after graduating from college in Minnesota with a degree in geospatial intelligence analysis, but those skills have allowed him to move to the mountains and work with Mary Anne Baker’s aerial business.  

Just like many operators, Baker started out flying drones as a hobby, and now it’s a part-time business. As the owner of an online marketing business, Baker realized her real estate and tourism agency clients could benefit from using the kinds of aerial shots only drones could get. 

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After doing the research, she started ImageRhee about a year ago and went through the tedious process of getting approved through the Federal Aviation Administration. Her operators started out using a DJI Phantom 2 but have now upgraded to a Solo 3DR.

“The technology has changed a lot just in the last year,” Baker said. “They are much more intuitive now.”

The 3DR captures video and photos with a GoPro camera with one-button flying capabilities. One would imagine it would be difficult to get sharp photos and video from an aircraft battling heavy winds up to 400 feet in the air, but the stabilization feature keeps the footage as smooth as if the drone were stationed on a tripod. 

Allen Newland of Waynesville used all his technical knowledge and his love of remote control planes to create his own aerial photography business — A Shot Above of WNC. While he has a full-time job as a blueprint estimator and computer tech for Haywood Builders Supply, he’s been able to turn a fun hobby into a weekend moneymaker. 

“I’ve always been into gadgets and been a computer guy since right after high school,” he said. “Over the years in other jobs I’ve worked on computers, robots and all kinds of very cool things. So, combining my computer skills and experience with my flying skills and experience along with my love for photography just came naturally.”

Newland found a niche doing aerial photography and video for his contractor buddies building houses. 

Similarly, Baker also started doing professional aerial shots for real estate agents in the area. What better way to showcase a mountain home than to get a panoramic shot of the entire property? A drone is able to get certain shots that a regular on-the-ground camera isn’t able to do. 

“You can imagine with homes here on a steep slope or a cliff it’s hard to get the straight-on shot for real estate listings,” Baker said.  

Aside from real estate shots, every weekend can be an adventure in the aerial photography business. Last weekend Newland was flying his drone over Lake Junaluska to get footage of people jumping in the lake for Haywood Waterways Association’s fourth annual Polar Plunge. 

Shortly after Winter Storm Jonas swept through Haywood County a few weeks ago, he flew over downtown Waynesville and Canton to catch the snow-covered aftermath. When heavy rains fell over the Christmas holiday, Newland was able to get vivid images of flooding all over the county. 

“We have increased our product offerings over the last year to include prints and other creative avenues within our business,” Newland said. “Today we work with local newspapers, architects, building contractors, Realtors and several other clients to provide professional and legal aerial imaging solutions.”

Baker and Monsrud have taken video and photos of many beautiful sunsets and fall foliage in Jackson and Swain counties. They shot video of a huge pedestrian bridge being installed over the Tuckasegee River in Cullowhee and the Historic Jackson County Courthouse covered in snow. ImageRhee is currently working with Jackson County Economic Development Commission to develop a marketing video for its website. 

“It all comes together because in the end a lot of our region depends on tourism, and our natural resources are breathtaking, especially from the air,” Baker said. 


Safety measures

It’s not all fun and games though — Newland and Baker adhere to a long list of safety precautions prior to every flight. 

Every flight requires a two-person crew — one person to fly the drone and a spotter to be constantly evaluating the surroundings of the drone. Baker is usually the visual observer while one of her operators flies the drone.

“The operator is busy controlling the drone so as the spotter I’m watching power lines, people and other obstacles because his line of sight may be different,” she said. “We’re usually within shouting distance of each other, but I stay closer to the drone.”

For A Shot Above, Newland serves as the pilot while his wife serves as the spotter. Newland also has caution signs with the name of his business on them so people in the area will be aware that aerial footage is being taken. He carries his pilot’s license and Section 333 paperwork around with him in case someone in law enforcement questions his authority to operate the drone. He also has to notify several people before he can safely fly. 

“We use a lot of checklists,” he said. “When I fly I have to call the Atlanta FAA office 24 hours in advance, file a notice that tells them where and when I’ll be flying. That puts us on the radar and lets the Asheville airport know where we are.”

Even though drones are supposed to fly below 400 feet and out of the way of other aircrafts, there are instances where MAMA (Mountain Area Medical Airlift) may be flying close to the 400-foot threshold.

Baker and Newland both said they are sure to ask permission from a property owner or business before scheduling a flight, whether it’s Western Carolina University or Lake Junaluska Assembly. 

As a personal safety measure, Newland said he doesn’t fly his drone if another drone is also flying nearby trying to shoot the same thing. 

“You can’t fly over people and you don’t want everyone out there trying to fly at the same time,” he said. 

Baker said she wouldn’t let just anyone fly a drone even if the technology makes it seem simple. It still takes a lot of practice to be able to be completely comfortable with the drone and prepared to handle any problems that may come up.

“You have to learn how controls work and be comfortable and fluid with your motions and maneuver between objects,” she said. “If I have a new operator, I wouldn’t have them operating in public until they’ve had a lot of practice.”

Newland said daily and monthly inspections of the drone are also critical to flying safely. He sends detailed documentation, maintenance logs and reports to the FAA monthly. 

“We operate our UAS with the same precision and attention to safety and details as we do when we fly in manned aircraft because we are indeed operating within the National Airspace System,” Newland said.

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