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Drone Hobby Turns Side Business

As reported by the Lansing State Journal

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The drone’s whirling blades sound like a nest of angry bees as it lifts off the pavement.

The strange craft is bigger than a dinner plate and weighs nine pounds. It hovers in the air in front of Ryan Latourette.

He wears an iPad on his chest that’s attached to a remote control and can send the drone up with the touch of a button. It can go 3,000 feet into the sky, fly at upwards of 40 miles per hour and travel two-and-a-half miles away from Latourette before he loses the signal.

But, today, the camera the drone is carrying will be shooting photos of a commercial building in Grand Ledge.

From the ground Latourette, who is 43, controls the drone’s trajectory and the framing of every photo taken.

Latourette is a project manager at Hewlett-Packard. Capitol Drones is his side business, a new venture. He uses his drones for aerial photography, to take videos and stills of iconic and popular landmarks like the State Capitol and Spartan Stadium.

It’s impossible for Latourette to go unnoticed when he’s working. Flying drones is a sure-fire way to strike up conversations with passers by.

“They think I’m crazy first,” he said. “Then they want to see it and then they want to fly it. Where ever I go I always draw a crowd. It just happens. People are very curious about them. They want to know how they work. They’re odd ducklings. They look very different from model air crafts.”

Latourette understands the fascination. His interest in drone technology began as a hobby. The self-described “techie” bought his first one over a year ago. It weighed just over two pounds and cost about $400.

Latourette spent another $1,000 “tricking it out,” and outfitting it with a camera secured in place with Velcro.

It isn’t the first time that the Delta Township resident was among the first in line to purchase a new gadget. He’s owned a robotic lawn mower for seven years.

“I don’t mow my own lawn,” said Latourette. “It does it for you. You have to run wire around the perimeter of your lawn and the robot senses the wire when it comes up to it and backs away. People stop on the highway to watch my mower mow the lawn.”

And then there’s his holiday display.

“If you were to go by my house at Christmas you could stop, tune your radio to my particular radio station I broadcast and listen to a Christmas carol and the lights on the house, on the bushes, are timed to twinkle, turn on and turn off,” said Latourette.

Once he’d purchased one drone, he wanted more. It became a family hobby. Latourette bought one for each of his daughters, Emma,10, and Anne-Marie, 13.

“I thought, ‘The kids have to have one,'” he said. “I wanted to teach them how to fly. They are so much fun. It’s very much like a video game. The controller itself looks like an X-Box controller. It’s a chance to play a video game that’s live, in-person and moving around.”

Taking photos with drones was something the Latourette family did for fun on vacation, on the weekends.

His drones have taken photos over the ocean, high above Michigan State University’s campus and over several mid-Michigan downtowns. He’s launched them at the state Capitol and Capitol Regional International Airport. They often draw attention and sometimes, concern.

Latourette has been approached by law enforcement during sessions at the state Capitol. A photo he took there now hangs inside the building manager’s office, a gift to staff. He has introduced himself to staff at the airport.

Latourette wants people to know he’ll be flying when he visits a location and wants them to be comfortable with it.

“I let them know that I want to fly there and I ask, ‘Can I be here?'”

“People have to work through this idea that drones are a bad thing,” said Latourette. “They see them as military equipment. Then you have privacy concerns. If I’m at 50 feet you’re pretty small. If I’m at 150 feet you’re an ant so it’s not like I’m spying on you.”

People started asking Latourette if they could buy his photos late last year. It motivated him to consider a side business.

“I’ve done a lot of photography. I used to shoot weddings,” he said, and it wasn’t exactly a crowded field.

Latourette said there aren’t any laws prohibiting the use of drones, but the Federal Aviation Administration has issued guidelines and is in the process of enacting regulations addressing height-restrictions and operation licenses for non-recreational use of “small unmanned aircraft systems.”

FAA Spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said individuals operating drones for commerical use do need authorization.

“The FAA still has regulatory authority over all air space in the United States,” she said.

Cory said the FAA focus currently is in educating users about proper drone use but those who fly them in a “reckless or careless manner” could face fines.

Latourette said he agrees with responsible and safe use of drones but says he believes, based on recent case law, that the FAA has no “enforceable regulations” in place yet.

“I’m not waiting. I see the opportunity,” he said.

Contact Rachel Greco at (517) 528-2075 or rgreco@lsj.com. Follow her/him on Twitter @GrecoatLSJ.

About Capitol Drones

Capitol Drones provides aerial photography and aerial video, capturing images and video at low altitudes utilizing drones. The business offers photos of area landmarks and commercial and residential property. Learn more on Facebook at “Capitol Drones.”

Customers can purchase four to five custom aerial photos of property for $150. Landmark photos start at $30 and vary in price, depending on the size of the print.

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