June 8, 2015

Drones taking flight in Central Mass. businesses


As Maribeth McCauley Lynch walked the property of one of her latest listings in Westborough, the Realtor looked up to see a hawk floating above the rolling four-acre site, envying the bird's view.

That perspective, she concluded, could help sell the property. So, during a chance meeting with a local drone operator, she jumped on the opportunity to meld an aerial video with still photos to help market the site.

Real estate is just one of many industries to explore the use of drones. Robust military use and a growing civilian following are helping to cement them into the culture and now into commerce. The sky's the limit (pun intended) when it comes to drone applications, with early adopters in Central Massachusetts already capitalizing on them.

For instance, it takes photographer Adam Metterville a few minutes to set up his drone for aerial photography and video and take to the sky. But that setup time can make all the difference in his final product. Metterville has been using a drone for nearly two years, and shooting promotional videos and weddings for much longer. Nothing gets a viewer invested in a film like an aerial shot, he said, which is an angle that had previously been limited to Hollywood films or high-budget videos. But, using a drone, a professional aerial shot can now be done for less than $2,000.

"Those five seconds worth of clips make a film so much more impactful," he said. "You would never be able to get a shot like that if you didn't have a drone."

For Lynch, a broker with Thrive Real Estate Specialists Shrewsbury, the Westborough property she was selling deserved a unique perspective, which Lynch found via the drone she used to shoot video of the property.

"For particular properties, this is just a great way to convey the lay of the land," Lynch said. "I had an idea of what it looked like flat, but being able to see it from above just changed everything."

As the types of unmanned aerial vehicles expand, so do the commercial applications, said Helen Greiner, CEO and founder of drone producer CyPhyWorks, based in Danvers.

Drones are making their way into different industries, she said, with aerial views having applications in farming, oil and gas, mining, construction, real estate and security, she said.

"There's (a) tremendous number of uses for drones in industry," she said. "All physical industries are looking because drones are powerful. You can get a look from a higher vantage point and go into dangerous situations."

According to a report by the Teal Group, the military made up 89 percent of the unmanned aerial vehicle market in 2014. With the technology making its way down to police forces or being adopted for commercial purposes, the transformation is following a path much military technology takes, including that of ground robots.

iRobot, based in Devens, has sold 5,500 ground robots to date. They range in size from a five-pound unit that rolls along the ground like a radio-controlled car on tank treads to a larger one that can lift more than 330 pounds with its mechanical arm. The applications of the company's robots now range from vacuuming households to monitoring radiation levels and examining equipment in nuclear power plants from a safe distance. The company still serves a wide array of military applications as well as law enforcement.

"A brand new technology is initially met with some skepticism, but that skepticism evaporates once you find a role that robot can play," Frost said, using the example of checking caves for enemy troops.

The military applications of the technology have paid off with interest from police departments and first responders. Drones could follow that same path, he said.

Privacy concerns

Military use of drones and the possibility of law enforcement applications have triggered privacy concerns that land-based robots have not encountered. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pushed a bill now before the Massachusetts House and Senate that would limit law enforcement use to emergency situations, require them to not carry weaponry and require a warrant for use in all other situations. These restrictions aim to combat the potential of drones to monitor private citizens, especially as the price point for a drone continues to drop, said Kade Crockford, who heads the Technology for Liberty project for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

"Folding technology like drones into the fourth amendment (of the U.S. Constitution) is a common-sense step we need to be taking in the 21st century if we want to ensure that the surveillance technology police are using … protects public safety as well as civil rights and civil liberties," she said.

Even as the ACLU tries to create strict guidelines for law enforcement, Crockford said the organization would fight for individuals' rights to use drones, based on applying the first amendment right of free speech to photography.

Greiner, of CyPhyWorks, argues that the privacy conversations around drones are part of a larger issue about cameras.

"The conversation we should be having is talking about pointing a camera where you shouldn't be. The talk about drones is a little bit of a red herring," she said.

Chris Markman, who used a drone to film scenes over Worcester's Kelley Square for a video project, has been doing aerial photography for a year and a half. He pointed out that corporations have had access to aerial images for years without being challenged.

"We are giving Google all these rights to have satellite images of our backyards," he said. "This has already happened but we haven't stopped to think about it until your neighbor can do it."

$11B market by 2024?

Privacy concerns and news of user mishaps will not be enough to knock the market for drones off their upward trajectory, according to those interviewed for this story. The Teal Group report also predicts nearly double growth for the worldwide for "unmanned aircraft vehicles" — or UAVs — from $6.4 billion to $11.5 billion a year by 2024.

Quickly advancing technology is making drones more ubiquitous. They have advanced from using the same controls that hobbyist-scale helicopter pilots have used for years to integrating more technology in both the drone itself — with better stabilization software and hardware, improving ease of flight while the controls are being integrated within smartphones, Markman said. The integration is only getting easier, with less expensive models coming along frequently.

What could affect whether drones continue to fly high is the delay in guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Currently, the only way a business can use a drone is through FAA authorization. The agency has granted about 450 so far.

Having companies apply for exemptions rather than outline requirements for commercial fliers has led many drone operators such as Markman to avoid officially offering their services commercially. Operators will either donate their services or only charge for editing to avoid having to apply for an exemption, said Markman.

"I would love for the FAA to come out and just say 'Here is what you have to do to get licensed,'" he said. "It's really confusing right now."


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