By Joyce M. Rosenberg
AP Business Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — That drone flying around a suburban house might not belong to a wannabe pilot — it may be a tool that’s become indispensable for a small business.
Many small companies have either built their business around drones or use them to do tasks they previously accomplished with regular planes and helicopters. The unmanned aircraft also take the place of humans who might otherwise use scaffolding or navigate difficult terrain to get a close look at a structure or damage from a disaster. Drones, whose prices range from under $100 into the thousands of dollars, can provide a cheaper, faster and safer means of conducting inspections and taking photos and videos.
Mark Stoner’s chimney repair company uses them to assess the work that a customer might need. Drones prevent him and his crews from having to rig up a scaffold or have a worker climb onto a sharply-angled roof.
“We started using them in dangerous or difficult situations where you can’t get a person very easily,” says Stoner, a founder of SirVent in Nashville, Tenn.
Cameras on the company’s three drones can show cracks or other damage and peer inside a chimney. The drones are controlled by a smartphone or a tablet computer.
“It’s just like playing a video game. They’re very easy to fly around,” Stoner said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued more than 5,000 exemptions, or permits, for commercial drones since it began regulating the non-recreational use of drones in September 2014. Companies must file petitions with the FAA to be allowed to use drones, which the agency refers to as unmanned aircraft systems.
Large companies also use drones in the course of their work. Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com, has said he hopes to deliver packages using drones. But, because drones have really only begun to get noticed in the past few years, they’re still something of a novelty. Companies, for that reason, can still stand out by using advertising or bidding documents to tout their ability to offer drones.
Meares Auction Group, which auctions real estate and other property, has turned to its website to post videos of properties that were shot by drones. Among them was one that showed sweeping vistas of a house and its grounds and gave viewers a sense of what it would be like to go up the property’s long driveway.
“Drones are the flavor of the month now,” says Darron Meares, CEO of the Pelzer, South Carolina-based company.
Company officials who are attracted to drones’ versatility and, in many cases, their ability to help cut costs are thinking of new ways to use them, says Regenia Sanders, a management consultant at SSA & Co. in New York. A company, for example, might be able to reduce its labor costs by using drones in a warehouse to check on inventory. But many companies also may not know yet if a drone makes economic sense, she says.
“People are just trying to look at possibilities for how drones can be used, and then think about the cost part,” she says.
GOING WHERE PEOPLE CAN’T
For some companies, just being able to do their work more easily is reason enough to use drones. For one, the machines come in handy when toxic spills from rail cars or pipelines occur in hard-to-reach areas and thousands of gallons of leaked chemicals or fuel prevent crews from assessing the damage and starting cleanup work.
“We’ve had several of those where they don’t allow anyone in because of health and safety issues,” says Bryan Martin, emergency response director at Superior Environmental Solutions, a Cincinnati-based company with offices in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Michigan.
Superior began using a drone three years ago, equipping it with high-definition cameras that show the extent of the spills and equipment that measures air quality. The drones send that data wirelessly to Martin’s teams so they can decide whether it’s safe to start approaching a site.
“Usually they have to go by vehicle and find access points or get a helicopter, but we can just send a drone,” he says.
The drone also helps officials decide whether an area around a spill should be evacuated, he says.
A company that owns a drone is more nimble because it doesn’t have to rely on private planes or helicopters, says Brian Webster, executive vice president with KWA Construction in Addison, Texas.
“You have to work with their schedule,” Webster says. With its own drone, his company can take as many pictures of its projects as it wants — and whenever it wants.
BETTER AND CHEAPER PHOTOS, VIDEO
C.L. Burks Commercial Roofing uses a drone to produce progress reports for the owners and managers of the buildings it works on. Those projects often include high-rises and shopping centers.
“In the past, we used a company with a plane and a camera, and that gets pretty expensive,” says Jut Carnes, a vice president of the Alpharetta, Ga.-based company.
The cost of using a plane to shoot photographs of a single building comes to about $500.
Cameras on drones take more than photos or video. Rotor Air Cam, a drone operator out of Plainview, N.Y., uses equipment that helps produce topographical maps and 3D models of terrain, said David Sanders, an owner of the company. Rotor AirCam, whose clients include oil and gas producers and other industrial companies, is also exploring the benefits of equipment that can detect gas leaks around oil wells.
Some companies have been started purely to fly drones for a variety of customers who want aerial photos or videos but don’t want or need their own aircraft. DroneLinx, a service based in New York, takes shots of cellphone towers, bridges, oil rigs and utility lines that are difficult to get proper inspections of, CEO Steve Metzman said. His company’s surveying services start at $2,500.
Metzman, a commercial-helicopter pilot, as well as a registered drone operator, also has local law-enforcement agencies for clients.
“They’re using drones to get immediate aerial views on crime scenes,” he says.
But some companies find drones don’t do better than full-size aircraft. Hahn Estate, a vineyard in Soledad, Calif., has experimented with using drones to check on the progress of grape crops.
Company officials are now thinking about going back to their former practice of relying planes for that purpose. With 1,100 acres to cover, it looks like a drone is too small and takes too long to survey all the vines.
“A regular plane can cover so much more ground and do it more efficiently,” said Andy Mitchell, a winemaker with Hahn.