Current technology has progressed to a point that small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS), essentially hobby sized remote controlled airplanes and helicopters, are more accessible now than ever before, both in terms of their relatively low prices and ease of flight control for new RC pilots. Quadcopters like the DJI consumer and prosumer Phantom and Mavic lines seem almost ubiquitous now – they are everywhere. Cameras, too, have come along way; they are smaller, lighter, shoot in much higher resolutions and have better lenses. It was only a matter of time before the two would be paired using relatively sophisticated, but also inexpensive, electronic image stabilization gimbals making a video and photographic aerial imagery easy, affordable and fun!
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It was probably also obvious to those paying attention that these camera-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), most often referred to as “drones”, would also fundamentally change a number of industries and become the basis for what is being called “the next great land rush in tech.”
“This market’s going to be huge,” said Ken Loo, a Sunnyvale mechanical engineer who used a 3-D printer to create his own UAV and hopes to one day become a drone consultant. “The possibilities are endless.”
Not one to miss an easy cliché, I’d say that when it comes to the commercial use of UAV video, “The sky’s the limit!”
Here are twenty ways, ideas, and applications that this drone-video combination can be used by video entrepreneurs (vtreps) to disrupt and dominate virtually untapped markets booming with potential:
Long the domain of commercially piloted helicopters and airplanes, aerial surveys are used in cartography, topography, feature recognition, archaeology and GIS applications providing information on terrestrial sites that are often difficult, or even impossible, to see or measure from the ground.
Small UAV operators are quickly finding a foothold in digital photogrammetric mapping and orthophotography services due to the enormous cost savings realized using small unmanned systems capable of carrying a variety of visual imagery payloads that can go slower and lower than much larger traditional aircraft.
BUILDING AND MONETIZING A YOUTUBE CHANNEL
Drone video is hot right now among UAV enthusiasts and many YouTubers, like Team BlackSheep, are gaining a HUGE number of subscribers by simply posting daredevil videos captured by their remote-controlled aircraft from interesting and unique places around the world.
Making money on Youtube is not difficult; leverage your channel followers and video views in a variety of ways: Promote your products, drive traffic to an online store or website, sell in-video advertising and product placement, enroll in the YouTube advertising partner program or become a YT celebrity!
Aerial photo reconnaissance has long been used to gather information on competitors. Information about the size and capacity of manufacturing facilities, numbers of employees, business expansion and the development of on-site infrastructure, as well as many other bits of practical intelligence, can now be derived using small and very low cost UAVs as compared to the otherwise enormous expense of using piloted commercial aircraft like helicopters and airplanes.
CONSERVATION, ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION, AND COMPLIANCE
In June, the Wildlife Conservation Society began training operators from the Belize Fisheries Department to use two drones to help track illegal fishing activities. The drones went into use just at the start of lobster season. And it is just one example of the growing use of drones in the areas of conservation and tracking down poachers.
Other examples of drones being used in the field include biologists and researchers using UAV video and aerial imagery to count everything from birds to polar bears while those in charge of enforcing environmental laws are looking for hard to detect activities like illegal logging and the dumping of harmful substances.
Amazon made popular (and sensational) the idea of commercial product delivery via unmanned aerial vehicles but their idea never took flight and Lakemaid Beer drone delivery services to ice fishermen in Wisconsin and Minnesota were grounded by the FAA in the United States. Drone delivery services nonetheless are taking flight in other corners of the world where flight is faster, safer and more economical than shipping via overland routes. Drones are delivering emergency medicine, small (but critical) mechanical parts and time-sensitive documents among other things.
Drones can provide public safety officials real-time video footage in areas hard hit by natural disasters like flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes that often make huge inhabited areas almost impossible and too dangerous to travel by land. Recently, in the wake of several very powerful earthquakes, disaster management and emergency response officials in Central America engaged freelance several UAV pilots to provide video services in support of their relief and repair efforts. Drones are currently being used in Fukushima, Japan where Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down over 3 years ago but radiation remains a serious health threat to visitors and scientists studying the area. As noted above, larger unmanned aerial systems can also be used by NGOs and humanitarian services to safely deliver medicine, food, and water to otherwise unreachable victims.
Filmmakers are finding that a well-operated multirotor aircraft capable of carrying cinema quality video cameras can be a less expensive and more versatile option than jibs, cranes, dollies, and cameras mounted on helicopters in order to get the perfect camera movement or tracking shot. Hollywood is champing at the bit to get in on aerial cinematography with drones and the U.S. government is currently considering a request from movie and TV producers to let them [legally] use unmanned aircraft to shoot aerial video (though we all know that drones have already been used in U.S. movie production).
LOW ALTITUDE BANNER ADVERTISING
OK, not exactly a video-based commercial opportunity, while I was writing an earlier article for Vtrep.com on a beach in Cancun, I did see a hexacopter flying down the beach at water’s edge toting a banner advertising a local nightclub and had to chuckle. (The pilot was flying FPV (first person view) using a GoPro video camera mounted below the aircraft and sending the video feedback to a monitor attached to his controller.)
MICROJOB VIDEO SITES
Many entrepreneurial filmmakers are offering drone video-related services and performances on “micro job” websites like the freelance video marketplace VideoToOrder.com. They run the gamut of offering creative and personalized videos that are used by consumers to send special messages to family, friends, and clients to marketing and promotion. I think I’ve seen it all being offered: sexy, quirky, scary, professional, in all manners of dress and locations with two exceptions: videos made underwater and, surprisingly, videos using or featuring a drone to capture the footage. With a little imagination you could offer your unique UAV freelance video production business to communicate all sorts of greetings and messages – birthdays, get well wishes, congratulations, URL promotion, brand building, etc.
Drones are increasingly being used by journalists and citizens alike to report the news. There have been several high profile instances in which small unmanned aerial systems have been used to document and provide video footage from areas of conflict, war, civil upheaval, accidents, and disaster. UAVs offer journalists a safe working distance from otherwise dangerous situations and can often be carried to the scene of a report and deployed by a camera operator far more quickly and at less expense than a commercially piloted new helicopter. Yes, celebrity photographers (paparazzi) are also using small unmanned aerial systems, too.
PIPELINE AND ELECTRICAL LINE INSPECTION
Utility companies have used commercially piloted aircraft, like airplanes and helicopters, to inspect hundreds of miles of electrical lines, towers and remote substations as well as oil and gas pipelines and pumping stations. Small unmanned systems equipped with cameras and video transmitters are now replacing much of the routine inspection that was very expensive and often dangerous to the pilots and inspectors.
Using drones in precision agriculture and crop surveillance can drastically reduce the time required for walking the fields and the high cost of using commercially piloted aircraft. Armed with specialized cameras that are capable of capturing specific wavelengths of infrared video, small unmanned aerial system operators are able to see contrasting colors that indicate the overall health of crops in the field. Areas of concern can be inspected much closer using the same UAV for verification, problem diagnosis and even delivering localized spot treatment. Farmers using unmanned aerial vehicles to surveil crops are reporting higher yield, reduced plant damage and lower costs, which is good for everyone.
REAL ESTATE VIDEOS
This is perhaps the hottest opportunity for entrepreneurial filmmakers who have experience using drones and aerial imagery. Real estate agents are very quickly realizing that very low altitude aerial video footage captured by drones sell large pieces of property and homes with unique features more quickly. Additionally, agents who hire UAV video companies report that they are attracting more listings as well.
RESORT AND HOTEL ADVERTISING
Similar to real estate videos above, what better way to show off a spectacular hotel situated on the perfect piece of property than to provide potential visitors the kind of video footage and aerial imagery only a small drone can provide?
In a time when hotels and resorts are fighting tooth and nail for advertising impressions and to stand out from the crowd on hotel booking applications and a glut of travel websites marketing agencies understand that unique video perspectives offer an edge in an otherwise tired marketing mix.
I have been paid for providing UAV video footage as well as having been given free lodging at luxury resorts in Cozumel and Cancun Mexico in trade for something I REALLY like to do anyway: Fly my drone!
Why not travel with your video camera and get paid?
SEARCH AND RESCUE
When Virginia resident Guillermo DeVenecia went missing not long ago, police and searchers were dispatched to find the 82-year-old man, who suffers from dementia and hearing loss.
They searched for three days using hundreds of volunteers, search dogs, and a helicopter in heavily wooded areas and fields to no avail. Concerned for his safety as the search dragged on, Fitchburg police issued a news alert to all residents to be on the lookout for the missing man.
It took David Lesh about 20 minutes to find DeVenecia with his drone.
Video from unmanned aerial systems is being used to secure sensitive locations and areas from unwanted trespassers to detecting and documenting theft. A friend of mine was hired by a large aquaculture (captive commercial fishery) that covers some 150 acres to fly his thermal imaging camera-equipped quadcopter over the grounds at night after several break-ins caused both the theft of fish but also the contamination of a grow out pond that caused much larger economic losses. The company came to the obvious conclusion that, in their specific situation, it was more cost effective to employ one security officer with an unmanned aerial surveillance system that could quickly cover a large area of difficult terrain than it is to hire five or six security officers that would be required to man posts properly distributed throughout the property. He thinks he has the best job in the world.
SPORTS AND EVENTS VIDEOGRAPHY
This is an exciting application of drones being used to capture sporting events from the air. I’ve seen UAVs being used to capture all sorts of events, from ESPN’s X Games, the Olympics, the Boston Marathon and even the Tour de France. There is no shortage of local, regional and world events that couldn’t be showcased from the air!
STRUCTURAL INSPECTION AND CONSTRUCTION SITE DATA
Not long ago my hometown was absolutely devastated by a flooding of historical levels. Several UAV operators were credited for their service to public safety by volunteering their drones’ first-person visual (FPV) systems (transmitting a live video feedback to a receiver) to allow law enforcement officials and structural engineers to survey roads and bridges they could not otherwise quickly and easily reach to assess the damage. Consequently, at least one of these pilots now regularly sells video footage to the local news outlet and contracts with a utility company.
Construction companies and architects handling large building projects are deploying drone operators to capture video in a way that allows them to measure and report progress. Insurance companies are employing drones to inspect and quantify things like hail damage claims to roofs rather than put adjustors at risk of falling as well.
SURVEILLANCE AND PRIVATE INVESTIGATION
Very recently I read an article online in which various private investigators around New York in the United States were claiming to use drones to obtain surveillance footage of cheating spouses and claimants faking injuries to bilk insurance companies. While I think it is highly unlikely that PIs are actually using drones in this manner (due to the loud rotor noise and the focal limitations of the cameras that fit on the hobby-sized aircraft), it is possible and there certainly are practical applications for using UAVs in private investigation.
Capturing unique aerial video footage from vantage points that only small unmanned aerial systems can provide to augment traditional wedding video is becoming a popular request by brides-to-be. And why not? Outdoor wedding venues are often chosen for their spectacular location and gorgeous scenery; drones can capture more of what makes the celebration’s backdrop special than ever before.
Please note that this article is written for a worldwide audience. Some countries highly restrict, forbid or require licensing and qualification when flying UAVs or using them for commercial purposes, especially in times of disaster. Many do not. While safety issues are outside of the overall scope of this article, UAVs are definitely a cause for concern in some situations. They can cause potential injury to bystanders or collide with controlled aircraft operating in the same airspace. There is no substitute for knowing and strictly adhering to applicable laws and regulations as they apply to you and your situation. PLEASE, always fly responsibly and with public safety in mind as your first priority.
Do you have an interesting idea or some experience using a camera-equipped unmanned aerial system to make money? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
(We understand that the topic of drones can be a bit contentious, especially when it comes to safety, regulation and using the “d-word”, so we only ask that you keep your comments sane and respectful. Thanks!)