Entrepreneurs: Husband-and-wife team Terry and Belinda Kilby traded careers as a software developer and art teacher, respectively, to launch their Owings Mills, Md.-based drone business, Elevated Element, in 2012.
“Aha” moment: Terry, a self-described tinkerer, first retrofitted a remote-control helicopter with a digital camera in 2010. Although the aerial photos were grainy, Belinda recognized the potential for capturing images from vantage points that were once impossible.
Optimal flight path: Creating the ideal drone took time. The original $150 prototype could not reach the desired altitudes or produce professional-grade images, so Terry retreated to his workshop, where he used a CNC (computer numerical control) machine and 3-D printer to experiment. After three years and more than a dozen airframe designs, he came up with the Cygnus quadcopter, a drone that flies up to 400 feet (below occupied airspace and the range in which remote-controlled aircraft are typically flown), capturing high-resolution images and video footage with a GoPro camera mounted to the frame.
Keeping under the radar: Word of the photo-snapping drones spread, and companies started requesting their services. “There are so many industries—farmers, land developers, festivals—that can benefit from aerial photos and videos,” Belinda explains.
But the startup has been cautious about accelerating the aerial photography side of its business. The reason: Federal Aviation Administration regulations regarding the commercial use of drones for photography are still murky. Last year, the agency brought charges against one drone pilot, but a federal judge dismissed the case. (An appeal is pending.)
The FAA prohibits most commercial photography by drone, particularly over urban areas and with drones heavier than 55 pounds, but exceptions are granted on a case-by-case basis. For example, permission to use drones has been granted on some movie sets. The agency has promised to release more specific guidelines for commercial drone operations by Sept. 30.
Elevated Element has never had a run-in with the FAA, a fact the Kilbys attribute to their focus on pursuing projects that are not federally regulated, such as building and selling quadcopters and developing software to help pilots log flight times and access analytics. (Terry suspects that flight logging will be an important component of the FAA’s new regulations.)
The Kilbys also offer drone-building workshops and summer camps, as well as aerial photography outside of urban areas. Their long-term goal revolves around licensing intellectual property.
“The minute the FAA issues a ruling, the market will be flooded,” Terry claims. “Our goal is to be bigger than that.” The FAA agrees that the industry is about to take off, estimating that as many as 7,500 small commercial unmanned aircraft systems may be in use by 2018.
Soaring sales: The couple invested $50,000 to develop their technology. In addition to the software and quad-copter sales, they expect to see a 75 percent increase in revenue from aerial photography projects this year. “Regulations will make business owners feel more free to use the technology, and when that happens our business will explode,” Belinda says.
Meanwhile, they plan to avoid filming concerts, festivals and other events at which crowds gather. “Seeing drones flying overhead may make some people nervous, and there is always a possibility that anything mechanical could fail, [so] we’ll never fly over a crowd,” Terry says. “We try to be very conservative about the projects we take.”
Jobs such as virtual factory tours are a more conservative, yet potentially lucrative, prospective market for commercial drone photography. Since the FAA doesn’t govern indoor airspace, factories can use drones to create a cinematic view of their operations to wow customers. Another market is land developers, who can hire Elevated Element to photograph a property from overhead for a better understanding of the topography.
Pricing: Aerial photography starts at $3,000, which includes one day of shooting with two operators. A hobby-level quadcopter called the Little Dipper (which carries a micro-size camera) retails for $109 at elevatedelement.com.
Up next: In addition to writing a second book, Getting Started With Drones, which will be packaged with a quadcopter, the couple is preparing to release two drone-related apps and three new copter models in early 2015.