My $1,100 Mistake

In September 2017, one of general contractor clients who I’d worked with closely in the past, had a project in the initial setup phase.

In this article I’m going to dive a little deep on some of the more technical aspects of what I was planning to deliver to the client, then talk a bit more about different challenges I faced.

They needed a highly accurate topographic map of the job site to begin planning their construction. This meant using ground control points (GCPs).


What are GCPs? Think of them as marked points on the ground that have a well known geographic location.

Typically, a professional surveyor will capture the coordinates of these marked points, however technology is advancing and there is now the ability for mobile GCPs like AeroPoints.

Why are GCPs used to make topographic maps more accurate?

Here’s the basics: when creating 3D topographic maps using photogrammetry, you can create maps with high relative accuracy. Using GCPs allows you to create maps with high absolute accuracy.

Relative accuracy = points in relation to each other

Absolute accuracy = points in relation to the real world elevation

Without the use of GCPs, you just have an accurate map relative to itself, floating in space. Using GCPs, you are able to bring that map to have high level of absolute accuracy (think about pulling that map down from floating in space, to the surface of actual terrain you are mapping).

Our plan for this jobsite was to have the general contractor provide the coordinates of 10 GCPs. I would then include these coordinates when creating the final 3D topographic point cloud using photogrammetry.

Additionally, after analyzing the airspace, I identified that the jobsite was within Class B Airspace, and was within an FAA grid map of 100 ft AGL.

Instantly I realized that:

  1. I would need Class B Airspace Authorization
  2. If I keep the operation below 100 ft AGL, there was a good chance the authorization would be issued faster

I had not applied for an authorization in Class B airspace before, so I had no idea how long it would take. Because I would be flying at or below 100 ft AGL, I called air traffic control to determine if I could get verbal authorization, or if I still need to make the request thru the FAA website.

Answer: I needed to apply online via the FAA website. This could take 90 days for getting the authorization, which would potentially delay the operation 3 months.

All this information in hand, I proposed a bid to the client. It totaled $1,100 for 2 hours of on-site work. It also included the cost for processing the 3D point clouds, acquiring the Class B airspace, and having an additional visual observer on-site.

Several days later, I spoke with the client and we discussed the bid. The price was not an issue, however the timing was. They needed this done in the next week, not 3 months from then.

The client agreed that performing the operation legally was of upmost importance, so they decided to stick with traditional methods (boots on the ground and surveying equipment) to complete the job.

And there lies my $1,100 mistake.

If I had been pre-authorized for this Class B airspace, I would have been able to legally complete the job.

Almost immediately after realizing this, I applied for authorizations in ALL airspaces on my island. For you this may mean applying for authorizations for all airspaces within a 60 minute drive.

Having these pre-authorizations is a huge differentiating factor for your own operations and potential competitors.

Lessons Learned:

  • Get pre-authorization to operate within airspaces where you will be performing commercial operations
  • There’s so many different opportunities out there for FAA-Certified Drone Pilots. Just get started and you’ll learn along the way.

Earning $450 For 3 Roof Inspections

In November 2017, I was connected to the owner of a local roofing company focusing on residential and commercial work.

I am always putting myself out there and introducing people to myself and my drone service business.

What I’ve learned in the past year is that our job as commercial drone operators is 80% education for clients as to how drones can potentially be used within their businesses. In this case, we identified an area that is highly time intensive for their roofing estimators.

Here’s an example to better illustrate this scenario:

  1. Homeowner has a leak in their roof or notices damaged shingles/tiles
  2. Homeowner contacts their insurance agent who involves a claims adjuster
  3. Claims adjuster has roofing company send an estimator to inspect the roof, identifying damage and taking measurements
  4. Claims adjuster verifies measurements and findings from roofing estimator
  5. Claim is approved or disapproved for homeowner
  6. Roofing company may get contract to repair/replace work

There’s a part of this entire process that causes a big hold up: when the roofing company sends their estimator on site.

They have to climb to the top of the roof and walk it, taking photos and measurements. Then wait several days for claims adjuster to do the same.

This sounds highly inefficient, right?

Agreed.

So that’s where drones come into the picture.

What if an FAA-Certified Drone Pilot can come on-site, fly their drone and take specific aerial photos, and later have a software that identifies all the required deliverables in a report that both the roofing company and claims adjuster agree upon?

Sounds like using a drone will save time, money, and is safer (no one has to climb 3 story roofs anymore).

That’s where I come in.

This local roofing company hired me to test a new roofing report software on three of their client’s roofs.

Setup:

The roofing estimator contacted me and sent me addresses of potential job sites to inspect, and I checked the airspace around each. We decided on two in the same neighborhood, and another on another part of the island, all in Class G airspace.

We scheduled the time and day, and I ensured the drone I was using (Phantom 4) was full charged, had current firmware, and passed my own visual inspection.

On the morning of my operations, I checked the weather, visibility, and if there were any Temporary Flight Restrictions in the area. SkyVector is a great resource for this.

NOTE: It just so happens that Air Force One was stopping off at PHNL airport in Honolulu two days later, which enacted a 30 mile no fly radius. Luckily, this did not interfere with the operation.

Upon arriving on-site, I performed my pre-flight checklist, which involves walking around the site among other things.

One big note for each job – I try to convey a level of professionalism, which means I’m wearing steel toed boots, pants, a collared shirt, and a fluorescent safety vest.

The aerial photos that the software required were a mix of orbits, close-ups, and a zig-zag pattern of vertical images (think a lawnmower pattern).

Picture from Pix4D

Delivery:

Successful delivery of the images just required access to a Dropbox account and uploading all images.

With 24 hours, the software company had generated special reports for each job site, highlighting damaged areas that required repairs, as well as measurements and surface area of the roofs.

Simple.

For these flights, I earned $150 per site. Each site required about 1 battery (25-28 min of flight time). In total including driving, a four hour afternoon of work earned me $450.

Not too bad!

Unfortunately due to NDA agreements, I’m unable to disclose the specific software company were testing. However, there are some great options when you search for “drone roofing inspection software” 🙂

Lessons Learned:

There are so many different types of opportunities out there utilizing aerial technology. This roofing company wanted an experienced drone operator to not only fly and capture images, but to test a new software. Eventually, this may lead to an opportunity to help setup an internal drone operation for the roofing company (think consulting).

I had no idea that a lot of roofing companies work was generated from claims adjusters and the relationship they have. Just goes to show you the importance of diving deep into industries and understanding all the inefficient existing processes that drones can replace.

Earning a great side income with drones if very do-able.


If you’re just getting started out and are looking to become an FAA-Certified Drone Pilot, checkout our video training program: Remote Pilot Ground School.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems – New Forecast Data From the FAA

Last week the FAA announced their Aerospace Forecasts for 2017-2037, which includes update forecasts for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

You can read the full set of forecasts as a PDF here.

This blog post is a recap of the most important data for commercial drone operators. All data is current as of April 2017.

Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate

In June 2016, the FAA issued the small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) Rule (14 CFR Part 107) which took effect August 29, 2016.

This rule set provided a regulatory structure for the routine operation of small UAS for commercial purposes.

Based on trends and expert opinions, the FAA forecasts that the amount of Remote Pilots (those with the Remote Pilot Certificate with sUAS Rating) will likely grow to 420,000 by 2021.

This compares to 29,000 Remote Pilot Certificates that have been issued as of December 2016. This means there is huge projected growth in the volume of commercially certified pilots over the next 4 years.

The estimated growth of the number of Remote Pilots between 2016-2021.

As of February 2017, over 90% of individuals who took the remote pilot knowledge test had passed. This pass rate is only slightly higher than the private pilot test (~87%).

What does this mean for those thinking about becoming a Remote Pilot? Plan to take and pass the test ASAP!

Right now, there is barely any competition for commercial jobs. But within the next four years, the amount of certified operators will likely increase 10x fold!

Present Uses of Commercial sUAS

Major applications of small UAS commercial uses. Many of the sUAS have multiple uses, hence why the chart percentages exceed 100%.

We see with this data the vast majority of sUAS uses are for aerial photography and real estate.

This gives a fair assessment of where most drone operators have been focused on with their businesses, and where the opportunities for growth are.

Top 5 Waiver Requests

There are many operating restrictions under Part 107, however, waivers can be applied for and requested.

Below is the breakdown for the top 5 waiver requests received by the FAA. The percentage of the chart exceeds 100% because of multiple requests at the same time.

We see here that the highest requested waiver is for night operations. Looking on the waivers that have been issued, we see that no waivers for Operations Over People have been granted yet (as of April 2017).

Note: this list only includes waiver requests, and does not include requests for fly within controlled airspace (such as Class B, Class C, Class D, or Class E from the surface).

Airspace Waiver/Authorizations

This data shows the breakdown of 6,835 airspace waiver/authorization requests. There is no data depicting the “issue rate” or “denial rate” of these requests.

The vast majority of requests (3,397 of 6,835) are for operations within Class D airspace (i.e. smaller airports with control towers).

What Does This Mean For Your Commercial Operations?

The FAA is slowly approving waiver requests, so you can start planning to do operations that require a special authorization. Currently there is a 90 day window from request to authorization.

To apply for a waiver, you must do so on the FAA website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver/

The process is fairly straightforward.

I recently received an authorization for operating in a Class D airspace, which I’ll be going over a step-by-step in a future post.

What I learned was how specific you need to be with everything – from the time window of the operations, to the GPS coordinate, to the altitude.

I predict in the future the FAA will streamline the waiver request process to be near instant (not 3 months), but we’ll see on that!

What The CEO Of DroneDeploy Taught Me

“Well, you should start with what you know.” said Mike Winn, the CEO of Drone Deploy.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Of course. It’s extremely simple and makes so much sense. A bit more on that later.

We had been standing in line to grab barbecue ribs at the 1st annual Drone Deploy Conference.

What is Drone Deploy?

If you haven’t heard about Drone Deploy, they’re a software startup based out of San Francisco that has software to fly your drone, collect collect images, then generate orthomosaics, 3D models, and terrain models.

The three areas Drone Deploy software works.
How the Drone Deploy works. (Source: www.dronedeploy.com)

November 3rd, 2016 was a user conference in their office, with speakers in a variety of industries (agriculture, surveying, construction, and service providers).

There were over 80 in attendance, not including the 20+ Drone Deploy employees helping and leading the event.

Conference in the Drone Deploy offices in downtown SF (November 2016).
Conference in the Drone Deploy offices in downtown SF (November 2016).

Industry Breakout Deep Dives

If you’re reading this, you’re most likely a “service provider”. That means you don’t have any particular experience in one of the big industries that are currently using drones:

  • construction
  • agriculture
  • surveying

These industries have already been using drones to replace expensive, time-consuming, or unsafe manned operations.

In particular, the construction and agriculture industries are highlighted to be responsible for over $23 billion in market opportunities over the next 4 years (Goldman Sachs).

Construction and agriculture projected to be 74% of the $23+ billion commercial drone industry over the next 4 years. (Source: Goldman Sachs)
Construction and agriculture projected to be 74% of the $23+ billion commercial drone industry over the next 4 years. (Source: Goldman Sachs)

To put that in perspective, those two industries alone are predicted to account for nearly 74% of the commercial opportunities over that same time span.

That brings us to our first lesson.

Lesson 1: Drones to Solve Problems Industries Already Pay For

As someone who is absolutely excited about the possibilities in the drone space, I needed to take a step back.

See, I have been thinking about how to use drones as a side-income for me. Something on the weekends, and maybe make an extra $500-$1,000 per month.

But I’ve been more focused on ME. And more importantly, how I can apply drones TO an industry.

Really though, it should be how drones can substitute tasks that industries already pay for.

Drones are just like any other new technology that disrupts industries. They are tools to reduce costs companies already have.

Software is the best example of this: everything from email (snail mail) to payroll (pad, paper, and countless hours) have been made more accessible and cheaper for companies.

Drones are just like that.

So instead of thinking up a “brand new way drones can be used”, the approach should be how can drones be used to solve problems that already exist.

This type of thinking was was a huge shift for me during the conference.

Which leads us to the second lesson I learned.

Lesson 2: Pick and Industry and Become an Expert

We had a group of about 25 people in our “deep dive” discussing service providers.

Essentially it was a group who are enthusiastic about drones and the technology, but have no real idea where we can apply it and make money.

Understanding the problems of an industry can be very complex. Knowing what deliverables a drone can provide that saves a company a 5x return on cost is also difficult.

For an industry outsider.

That’s where the advice from the Drone Deploy CEO comes in: start with what you know.

There’s a reason most new drone operators decide to do real estate videos and photos: it’s simple to understand.

Drone real estate videography and photography are simple to understand. (Photo source: https://droneandquadcopter.com)
Drone real estate videography and photography are simple to understand. (Photo source: https://droneandquadcopter.com)

From the surface, the problem (showcasing the area and uniqueness of a property) and the deliverables (short video and photos) are as straight forward as they get. Additionally, who you need to talk to (real estate agents) makes sense.

That’s not the case with these other big industries.

Do you know who would be responsible on a construction site for approving drone operations? What is a drone service deliverable for a construction site anyway?

That’s why almost everyone flocks to real estate. Understanding.

The advice to start with what you know makes a lot of sense for me: I was a project engineer designing photovoltaic systems for residential properties in Hawaii for over 1.5 years.

I have a good idea of how drones can be applied (surveying, thermal inspections), but more importantly I have an understanding of the industry. And connections to talk with companies to learn more about the problems they face.

Thermal image of a ground-mounted solar farm (source http://adtsgroup.com/).
Thermal image of a ground-mounted solar farm (source http://adtsgroup.com/).

Think about your background. Think about your network. What knowledge do you already possess? Who do you know that you can ask about their industry?

Next Steps

So what should you do next?

  1. Brainstorm industries you already know
  2. Run through your network and begin asking questions about the biggest problems they face in their industries, and how drones could be used.
  3. Reach out to companies in your local area (construction, agriculture, survey, and inspection)  to being asking these questions of industry professionals.

In conclusion, we are at the forefront of the coming tidal wave of drone technology, and it’s important to find your niche.

Countless other people have the same question you have (“what industries should I choose to offer drone services”).

And we’re all trying to figure it out!