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A bird! A plane! A UAV!

Unmanned aerial vehicles get off the ground in central Arkansas.

By Shea Stewart

This article was published August 20, 2013 at 11:31 a.m.


Robert Davis’ unmanned aerial vehicles get off the ground in central Arkansas.

Don’t call it a drone.

Robert Davis’ rectangular-shaped flying contraption of aluminum, carbon fiber, wires, electrical tape and four miniature rotors — its functionality is its ugliness — is called an unmanned aerial vehicle. In this case, a quadcopter.

The word drone is best reserved for unmanned aerial vehicles used for military and security purposes. As the owner of ArkansasAerials, an aerial photography and video company, Davis’ unmanned aerial vehicle is used for aerial photography and videography purposes. Right here in central Arkansas. In the U.S., there are approximately 2,860 members (including Davis) of the Radio Control Aerial Photography Association, which “represents remote-control airplane, remote-control helicopter and other aerial vehicles involved in commercial and recreational aerial photography.” And Davis and these people prefer to call their radio-controlled flying devices anything but drones.

On this unusually balmy August day in a field next to west Little Rock’s Fellowship Bible Church, Davis stands dressed in a Polo shirt and shorts, his eyes, having forgotten his sunglasses, shaded by a straw hat. It’s time for a demonstration of an unmanned aerial vehicle.

Davis’ flying mechanism is actually a FOXtech Glyder Series Quadcopter with a Sony NEX-5 digital camera housed in the first-person viewer’s gimbal system. Davis’ total rig — quadcopter, camera, remote control and all — cost about $2,500, although people can purchase unmanned aerial vehicles ready to go shoot photographs and videos out of the box for $20,000. Davis calls his unmanned aerial vehicle, built from a kit, “hideously ugly.” “You can tell it is homemade,” he says. “[It’s] like a race car. It’s stripped down to be as light as it can be and carry the heaviest camera it can possibly carry.”

Davis’ unmanned aerial vehicle in flight sounds like a weed wacker. A weed wacker that flies. The gadget goes airborne with a high-pitched buzz, whizzing into the air. The vehicle can fly as fast as 20 mph, although the video from fast flight is not as smooth as video shot while piloting the unmanned aerial vehicle at 5 mph.

“Where the technology really shines is when you are close in on buildings or objects,” Davis says. Proving his point, he pilots the quadcopter in close on a tree lining the church parking lot, orbiting the tree. Watching through goggles providing a live feed from the quadcopter, the shot looks smooth enough for a Hollywood film.

The concept for ArkansasAerials came to Davis about three years ago.

“What got me into it was ... I was researching footage online ... and came across a guy in Europe who had remote-control footage from a helicopter,” Davis says. “I thought immediately, ‘Wow, that’s awesome’ so I ran out and bought a helicopter system — not knowing what I was buying — and after about a thousand dollars of crashing it and learning how to fly, I reached out to the nearest club with the intention of learning how to fly for commercial reasons.”

The club is the Mid Arkansas Radio Control Society. Davis met club members and started learning to fly remote control aircraft, first maneuvering airplanes before moving on to helicopters. Now, flying remote-control airplanes has become one of Davis’ weekend passions.

After learning the ins and outs of flying unmanned aerial vehicles, Davis officially started ArkansasAerials in February of this year, operating it under Aileron Media, an umbrella company. He is also the owner of East Creek Studios, a TV, radio and Web production facility. Shooting photographs and video from the sky is a natural step for Davis. He has a 17-year background in radio and TV, starting as a radio producer and on-air personality before transitioning to TV, cutting his teeth and learning about editing, shooting and other aspects of production.

Uses of UAVs

This thing — this thingamajig — flies. Really, it does. The gadget doesn’t look like it should, even with its four small rotors. The quadcopter looks like a land-based gizmo, an Erector Set stuck to the ground for eternity. But it zooms up in the air. All 8.5 pounds of it, aeronautics in action.

The quadcopter soars, floats, turns and hovers. Capturing life from the sky. A view that can’t be produced from the ground.

This is the quadcopter’s use. These bird’s-eye views — photographs and videos — are what has Davis, and people like him, excited.

Imagine the photographic and video capabilities of an unmanned aerial vehicle. Think of the advertising applications. Expensive or impossible elevated tracking shots of shopping centers, subdivisions and automobile dealerships made simple. If a Realtor is a client of Davis’, he can use his unmanned aerial vehicle to provide not just ground-level photographs and videos, but he can also float his unmanned aerial vehicle into the air and showcase a house’s full reality. How the house exists in its surroundings.

But there are other uses. Picture a disaster scene. An area wrecked by a flood or tornado. An unmanned aerial vehicle can provide news shots that nothing else can. Closer than a news helicopter.

Or what about a search-and-rescue operation? Instead of people lining up, tramping across a field or trundling through a swamp, an unmanned aerial vehicle can fly just above the landscape, sending back photographs and videos of what lies beneath it.

Or visualize an unmanned aerial vehicle as a traffic helicopter, sitting above the Interstate 30 and 630 interchange in the late afternoon, reporting back live video of traffic jams.

“The applications are really incredible,” Davis says. “You think crop surveys, search-and-rescue. You can design these things where they stay up for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Depending on how much money you want to put into them, they will fly autonomously. You can program waypoints on a GPS system.”

And then there are other uses being kicked around for unmanned aerial vehicles. Perhaps a food-delivery system at a large, outdoor restaurant or beer garden. Table-side service via quadcopter.

Davis has already used his unmanned aerial vehicle for some of these purposes. He’s shot tornado damage of April’s tornado in Scotland for KATV Channel 7. He’s working on an Argenta district advertising campaign. And he’s filmed The Promenade at Chenal at dusk.

“The use of ArkansasAerials has been a great help to The Promenade at Chenal by showing a new perspective to what goes on at The Promenade each day,” says Bethany Siems, marketing coordinator for The Promenade at Chenal. “We are working to expand our reach with locals and visitors by way of several collateral materials to include a two-minute ‘Visitor’s Video’ that will portray west Little Rock and The Promenade at Chenal as one of the destinations for visitors to The Natural State. [Davis’] overhead video capabilities have given our video better screenlike action and makes the viewer feel like they are traveling through west Little Rock with us. It’s an amazing tool, and we look forward to using the aerial contraption again as our shopping center continues to expand.”

But Davis can’t charge for his aerial image acquisitions. Not right now.

Laws and regulations

The Federal Aviation Administration is still developing regulations for unmanned aerial vehicles, or, as the FAA refers to them, unmanned aircraft systems, for commercial uses. While people don’t need approval from the FAA to fly a model aircraft for recreational purposes, FAA guidance says they should be flown below 400 feet, away from populated areas and full-scale aircraft, and are not for business purposes. Flying an unmanned aerial vehicle for business purposes requires FAA approval and, according to an FAA report, the administration is currently “drafting a rule to address small [unmanned aerial systems].” Guidelines for unmanned aerial vehicles used for commercial purposes are expected by 2015.

According to an FAA fact sheet on unmanned aerial systems, the administration is mainly concerned with these objects operating within the nation’s airspace. And the administration is “developing new policies, procedures and approval processes” for civilian operators of unmanned aerial systems.

All this technical talk means Davis and others can fly their unmanned aerial vehicles, but just for fun — they can’t charge clients for any footage they collect through their use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

What Davis does is charge clients for ground photography and video production and editing needs, and collects any requested aerial images and videos at no additional charge.

Davis is all for regulation of the burgeoning industry. And he doesn’t worry too much about competition when it comes to professional aerial photography and videography.

“I hope the FAA looks at a program that is at least a year-long course,” Davis says. “[Unmanned aerial vehicle piloting] goes beyond the typical dynamics of flight. Some people just won’t be able to do it. It’s definitely not for everybody.”

Beyond safety concerns, there are concerns over invasion-of-privacy issues, too, especially with recent news of the National Security Agency breaking privacy laws and overstepping its legal authority thousands of times in the last five years.

Davis agrees there are privacy concerns but most of the people he’s interacted with while operating his unmanned aerial vehicle have been “excited about the technology,” asking how the quadcopter works and if he can shoot birthday parties, weddings and the like.

Still, Davis does sometimes get questioned if he is working for the NSA. He says that while shooting aerial video earlier this year in Argenta, a couple of guys coming from a wine tasting — “a little lit” — accused him of being with the NSA.

“I think that the thing that should ease people’s fears is ... not everybody is going to be able to fly these things,” says Davis about privacy concerns. “It’s going to take training and time. They need to be competent pilots. The other thing is ... when you are in the air and shooting subject matter, what are you actually seeing? I’d be more concerned about tiny spy drones. You are going to hear and see this. And, depending on what these people have invested, they are going to be within a couple hundred yards of you. You’re going to be able to see them.”

“He’s very, very good about notifying everybody within a mile radius of what he is about to do [before flying],” adds Davis’ wife, Rebecca Davis, who runs marketing for ArkansasAerials.

But perhaps the biggest fear some might have is not private citizens using unmanned aerial vehicles for small-business purposes. What about law enforcement? Some attempts have already been made at the state level to regulate unmanned aerial vehicles, either being used by private individuals or law enforcement.

During this year’s Arkansas General Assembly, Rep. Nate Steel (D-Nashville) was the lead sponsor of a House bill concerning the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. The bill, which died in committee, defined and limited uses of unmanned aerial vehicles by law enforcement.

In the Arkansas Senate, Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) introduced a bill that would have prohibited the use of an “unmanned aerial device that is equipped with a video recording device except when used by a law enforcement agency or authorized emergency personnel; and for other purposes.” The other purposes allowed “operating the unmanned aerial device as part of his or her official job duties.” Violation of the act would have resulted in a class C felony, but the bill died when the Senate adjourned.

Davis sent the proposed Senate bill to his lawyer who told Davis he shouldn’t be concerned, but Davis says he is prepared to talk to the Arkansas General Assembly about any state bills concerning unmanned aerial devices.

“With some states shutting the door on [remote control aerial photography], ours definitely is not,” Davis says.

And so Davis waits till the day the FAA starts regulating unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial uses. And he practices his craft with clients for free.

“It’s a hoot,” he says of piloting his unmanned aerial vehicle. “It’s a lot of fun. I look forward to when I can charge for it.

“The biggest push is advertising. That’s the industry I come from. All my buddies in the business ... they all seem to want this. In the TV market, I think you are going to see a lot of this from me and my competition. Especially when the FAA allows us to charge for it.”

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