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Running an Aerial Photography Company: Interview with John Deans

This article was originally published in June/July 2016 issue.

DRONES MAG: How did you first come to discover multirotor platforms and how long have you been flying them?

JOHN DEANS: The vast majority of my flying experience was actually being in the air as a private pilot. Since getting my pilot’s license at the age of 19, I have flown both low and high wing single engine, along with sport aircraft like ultralights, sail planes and aerobatic biplanes. Only after DJI introduced the “Return Home” capability with the Phantom series platforms did I venture into multirotor UAVs. It took only a couple of flights for me to realize there was a potential market for the smooth HD video made possible by a 3-axis gimbal.

Since my family and I live on a Texas ranch, I was blessed with a great home base to learn the art of drone photography. I spent numerous hours and days flying, downloading media and editing the raw footage into cinema-quality productions. Our property has creeks, ponds, high trees, open pastures and even high voltage powerlines, enabling me to practice my aerial craft before flying a client site.

DM: When did you decide to get your 333 exemption and how long did it take you to do so?

JD: As a small business person, I first had to perform some Pro-Bono test flights to verify the marketability of the drone-based deliverables. After a few short months, it was crystal clear that this UAV business venture was viable and I was excited to pursue it full time. I wanted to comply with the FAA rules, so I immediately began investigating how to attain the 333 Exemption. I even consulted with numerous lawyers who had experience drafting successful 333 Exemption request documents.

After being shocked at the $5K-$10K price for lawyer “services” back in early 2015, I decided to draft my own version using previously successful 333 Exemption requests. I used a document available on the FAA web site as a template for my request, with the permission and assistance of the document’s original owner. In August of 2015, four months after I submitted my 20+ page FAA 333 Exemption request, I received the confirmation letter. After that I was ready to earn as a legit commercial drone pilot with a couple of Phantom II UAVs that had official N-numbers!

DM: What sort of commercial jobs do you specialize in at Central Texas Drones?

JD: The majority of my income is from rural real estate, showcasing projects with 50 or more acres. Since I live near Brenham, Texas, there are dozens of real estate agents and brokers that specialize in farm and ranch deals. High quality real estate videos practically sell themselves and I had the majority of realtors within a thirty-mile radius as clients before the end of 2015. They are more than willing to pay several hundred dollars for a YouTube video in HD with smooth transitions and nice background music, providing potential buyers with an elevated tour of the country property.

The second market is the construction industry. Project status aerials are a big hit with General Contractors (GCs). My production-level, three minute movies enable them to show off their work to clients. Central Texas Drones has also provided both 2D and 3D mapping to GCs, offering them measurements and the ability to accurately document construction progress milestones.

Event coverage is another market that is increasingly frequent since companies want to stay legal and film their event with a real commercial drone company holding a 333 Exemption. Races, runs and festivals request my UAV photography services at an ever- growing rate.

DM: What types of machines do you use to fly your commercial jobs?

JD: My first birds to get N-numbered were my twin DJI Phantom II Vision Plus drones. Soon after they were airborne, I submitted
the 333 Exemption Amendments to add the Phantom III Professional and Inspire 1 V2. My second 333 Exemption Amendment to cover the newly released Phantom IV will be filed by the end of March. The FAA’s wait time for the amendments to add new aircraft is extremely frustrating since the Phantom 4 came out before most 333 holders’ original requests to add their Phantom 3’s were approved.

As a commercial drone pilot for hire, I have had opportunities to fly different UAVs of 333 Exemption holders who lacked licensed private pilots. These contract flights have been on Phantom 3’s and Inspire platforms. Nearly all my flights utilize DJI drones as I prefer the consistency of their multirotor hardware, control app and dependable flight performance. Most outside 333-Exempted companies hire me to fly Inspire 1 drones.

DM: What types of steps do you perform in preparation of flying a job?

JD: Flight prep is critical. Let’s take real estate showcasing as an example. Finding the exact location and verifying the property boundary lines is important. Google Earth Pro and are my favorite tools to view the site before I even give a quote for the project. Step one is to verify that no public airports are near the UAV flight area. There have been instances when a ranch aerial project request had a municipal airport (without control towers) within two miles of the property to be filmed. I had to file a COA (Certificate Of Authorization) request, in addition to the NOTAM (Notice to Airmen), with the FAA. The COA usually gets clearance within two weeks and is good for two years.

Before I load up my SUV with my primary and backup UAVs, I analyze the property’s positive qualities that I want to highlight from the air. I check for photo- graphically pleasing features like creeks, ponds, topology changes and attractive infrastructure improvements.

Projects with 300 acres of unimproved land covered in pine trees are boring and difficult to film for a good aerial video. On the other hand, 100 acres with a million-dollar ranch house, numerous barns, a large lake and live creek can be a bonanza, requiring several flights and multiple batteries.

DM: About how many minutes of footage and stills do you usually capture on your average day?

JD: My average real estate showcasing project is about 100 acres for which I’ll make three to six sorties (take-offs and landings) over one to two hours. During that time I will capture fifty to seventy videos that are ten to sixty seconds long, along with fifty to one hundred high-resolution stills. The goal is to have ample scenes to tell the story of the property from the air. During post- production back in my home office, I’ll use barely ten percent of what I shot after extreme trimming and elimination of non- interesting views. On days with multiple projects, I have gathered 10GB of video and stills at each of up to four sites. Battery management and flight coverage documentation is critical on multiple-site days.

DM: Any jobs in particular that have made you sweat more than others due to conditions or locale?

JD: Construction aerials are the most challenging for numerous reasons. The primary issue is due to the locations being more populated and needing a competent spotter to watch for low flying aircraft. Site security can also be an issue if you are flying on the rough side of town and some “bad guys” take interest in your expensive airborne gear. Scheduling can be troublesome also when the GCs want specific tasks filmed, like cement pours and high concentration of construction activity, to make them look busy at the site.

Mapping jobs can be stressful because of how precise you have to be. Another issue with mapping is that you have to wait for the processing of the point cloud or for your high performance PC to accurately consolidate your scores, if not hundreds, of high resolution photo into a single Giga-Pixel image. Double that if you are required to provide “Volumetrics”  with  numbers that have to be correct because critical business decisions will be made based on your aerial data

What other hobbies or duties occupy your time when you’re not aloft, providing clients with aerial media?

JD: When I’m not flying or prepping to fly, I’m teaching firearms courses and doing chores on our family ranch. Since we built a gun range on our ranch, conducting Concealed Handgun License (CHL) courses is both a hobby and another diverse income stream.

Since jobs and hobbies tend to merge, being an IT consultant, landlord, firearms instructor and drone pilot, life is definitely not boring. Over the past two years, my mind constantly swings to droning. My mental energy has been focused on sales and marketing along with new product development. It is difficult enough to have good weather to earn in the air. What you don’t want are clear days with no gigs to fly. It takes an aggressive sales effort to keep the pipe full with aerial projects to fill those nice weather days. The goal is to fly with the clear skies and perform post-production efforts during those rainy, cloudy or windy days.

This blossoming commercial drone industry is not just leading edge, but actually bleeding edge and staying up on the issues like the latest UAV hardware and firmware, mapping techniques and aerial editing skills is non-stop. Finally, you still have to be always enhancing your piloting skills both safely and professionally.

DM: What are your thoughts on where the industry is going on the commercial end of things?

JD: It only goes up from here. I’m enjoying a near monopoly in my area as a commercial drone pilot because I not only hold the FAA 333 Exemption, but I’m also a private pilot, making Central Texas Drones an efficient one-man show. Within a few months the FAA Part 107 is expected to be approved and implemented, thereby opening the competition firehose to siphon off my established client pool.

This is NOT a part time job. A true drone pilot entrepreneur has to be not only dedicated, but also very flexible, technically savvy and available to the variables of the weather. You will wear many hats in this business including marketer, salesperson, weatherman, navigator, pilot, director, cameraman, editor, accountant and bill collector. Welcome to the world of small business – from the earth to the sky!

DM: We, here at Drones magazine are happy to have you onboard as a contributing writer, to give us an insider’s look at things from the other side of the 333 Exemption. Any teasers as to what we might be looking forward to from you, as far as subject matt? er goes?

JD: After hundreds of pre-commercial and billable flights, I have learned this UAV business from a field operator’s perspective. Over the next few months we will discuss the critical components required to make money by keeping your bird in the air on a consistent basis. We will also cover issues like what and how to deliver the UAV-based product to the client, how to make a trip to multiple sites in one day, racking up strong profits and what to keep in mind when you hear a helicopter approaching your flight area, even after you’ve fi led the FAA required NOTAM. We will also take you through in real time the migration process from 333 Exemption to Part 107 so that you can keep the aerial money fl owing!

DM: Thanks for taking the time to give us a little background on you and your business, John. We look forward to being made privy to the inner workings of an actual commercial operation through your experience over the foreseeable future