Former combat pilot’s drone business takes off

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Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, are being used for everything from agriculture to marketing in Greenville. Photo by Will Crooks.

Brian Scott piloted attack helicopters for the U.S. Army for nearly a decade, providing air support for ground troops in Iraq and acting as their eyes in the sky. But now the Greenville resident is flying from behind the screen of an iPad, not a cockpit.

In 2013, Scott retired from the military to pursue his interest in unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones. After some research and flying lessons, he acquired the necessary exemption from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to operate drones commercially and founded Upstate Aerial, a drone photography business.

Since then, Scott has found no shortage of customers, including real estate agents wanting to market their listings from the sky. The Community Journals family even hired him to shoot some aerial shots of the Reedy River for us.

However, Scott recently shifted his company’s focus to construction and infrastructure, which are quickly emerging as key drivers of the commercial drone market.

In fact, drones have the potential to replace more than $40 billion of services and labor in construction and infrastructure, according to a 2016 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a multinational accounting research firm based in London.

“It was just a natural fit for me to take my love of aviation and combine it with my architectural experience,” said Scott, who studied architecture at Purdue University and previously worked as a BIN manager at several local architecture firms.

“Being in the industry beforehand also means that I am better positioned to bring real value to my clients. I speak the language; I understand the limitations of the tech; and I don’t try to sell what isn’t going to help my clients grow their business,” he added.

Scott uses drones to monitor, document, and inspect construction and infrastructure sites. The process is simple: Scott flies a drone above a site, snaps pictures from various angles and heights, and uses software to stitch the photos into a 3D structural model or map.

Brian Scott, owner of Upstate Aerial. Photo by Will Crooks.

Prior to drone usage, aerial imaging was a costly process performed by manned aircraft, such as airplanes or helicopters, said Scott. Drones, however, are much cheaper and faster than human surveyors, and they collect data more frequently, letting construction workers track a site’s progress with a degree of accuracy previously unknown in the industry.

And while some might see similarities between Upstate Aerial’s technology and Google Earth, Scott is quick to point out the advantages of the drone.

“Google Earth is certainly getting better, but it will not for the foreseeable future offer sub inch accuracy. I’ve pulled building and grade info from Google Earth Pro, and the data was off by several feet,” said Scott. “The work we do on average hovers in the sub inch area.”

“Our models aren’t perfect for every instance, but for the vast majority of documentation we can provide similar or better results than a person in the field with tape measure at a fraction of the cost and time,” he added.

Scott uses three drones, each varying in size and abilities and costing between $1,000 and $2,500. He also uses an iPad to monitor his drone’s location, height, and other diagnostics.

So far, Scott has spent more than $30,000 on drones and cameras. He recently purchased a DJI Phantom IV Pro, which has a 20-megapixel camera capable of shooting 4K video.

“Drones are like computers; there is always something better coming to market,” he said

Scott’s ability to shoot quality footage and provide high-precision measurements has attracted the attention and business of local companies, including Greenville’s Harper Construction and CCAD Engineering, and multibillion dollar corporations.

In April, for instance, Scott signed a contract with Walmart to photograph about a dozen stores in South Carolina and Georgia. “The purpose of the data capture mission was to create models of existing stores so that Walmart’s energy conservation team could investigate the installation of solar panels for each location,” he said.

According to Scott, the resulting models saved the retailer “tens of thousands of dollars in field verification and architectural modeling costs.”

A Growing Industry 

Scott expects drone services like his to become more common in the coming years.

“We’re already seeing more people getting into the industry, because the drones are pretty cheap and easy to fly. You can actually buy one for around $500,” he said. “In the next decade, drones are going to completely revolutionize the way businesses operate.”

Scott said recent changes to FAA rules are already opening the industry to a new group of commercial drone operators who can perform a variety of jobs, from agriculture to marketing.

Last year, the FAA removed a requirement that drone operators also be licensed to pilot an airplane or other manned aircraft. The new rules allow people to become a certified commercial drone operator through a 16-hour course and a test.

Scott, who has performed more than 100 drone flights since he went into business, passed the test last year. “It’s no joke,” he said. “I know people who’ve taken online courses to prepare.”

The FAA expects the new rule to drastically boost the number of drone businesses across the country. Earlier this year, the agency said 20,000 drones were registered for commercial use after the new rules were announced. The agency also said the new rules could generate more than $82 billion for the economy and roughly 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.

Photo by Will Crooks.

According to Gartner, a technology research firm, commercial drone sales are expected to increase about 60 percent to 174,000 in 2017. By 2022, analysts predict the commercial drone market to skyrocket to $23 billion worldwide, up from about $6 billion today.

South Carolina’s commercial drone industry is already taking off, according to Eric Harkins, president of the South Carolina UAV Operators Alliance, a Columbia-based organization focused on drone advocacy and pilot support.

Harkins said there are more than 100 commercial drone operators across the state.

Skyview Aerial Solutions of Summerville, for instance, has become one of the state’s largest drone businesses in South Carolina since opening in 2013. The company, which has four pilots and nine drones, offers construction management, energy loss analysis, and more.

In Greenville, drones are being used for everything from agriculture to documentaries.

Forrest Briggs Photography, for instance, has used drones for construction monitoring, real estate marketing, and more since 2013. Today, aerial photography accounts for about 30 percent of the company’s business, according to Briggs.

In 2014, Sergio and Carlos Loaiza purchased a drone and launched ProBros Productions, an aerial photography company. The brothers, who received their “remote pilot airman certificate” last year, offer search and rescue services and more.

A New Flight Path 

As drone businesses continue to appear across the state and create increased competition, Scott is looking to expand his company.

Last year, Scott signed a contract with Action Drones Inc., a drone manufacturer based in California, to inspect thousands of wind turbines across the country for Berlin-based manufacturing and energy powerhouse Siemens AG.

“The market is massive,” said Scott. “Companies are increasingly sending drones up to snap photos of turbines so they can identify problems.”

According to Navigant Research, the “cumulative global revenue for wind turbine drone sales and inspection services is expected to reach nearly $6 billion by 2024.”

And while the wind industry, which employs more than 100,000 employees, is booming, turbine blades, and the mechanical parts that harness their power, eventually break down.

“Deterioration can cause reduced energy production in early stages and catastrophic and costly blade collapse if left unnoticed,” Navigant says. “This is driving a brisk business in wind turbine blade inspections, a role that has traditionally been accomplished from the ground with simple visual inspections or more complicated and risky rope or platform access. A new approach using unmanned aerial vehicles… is rapidly muscling in as a middle option.”

Photo by Will Crooks.

According to Scott, drone inspections offer safety benefits over manual inspections.

“Infrastructure is often located in areas that are not well-positioned for humans,” he said. “Drones can accomplish the same task without the risk much faster and at a reduced cost.”

Inspectors have to climb hundreds of feet and deal with unpredictable weather to perform maintenance on the turbines, according to Scott. Drone inspections, however, allow them to remain on the ground, where it’s safe.

Scott also said drones decrease labor costs, increase productivity, and deliver better data.

For instance, Scott’s drones will fly up to a turbine, capture images of all four sides of each blade, circle around it to cover the whole surface area, and land in under 15 minutes.

The captured images will then be used to build a 3-D model of each blade and allow Siemens to figure out the timing of repairs, while accurate data location provides a clear benchmark and a digital timeline of damage progression.

According to Scott, his drones will be able to inspect 15 turbines daily.

“The work will ramp up as it progresses, but we are estimating 4,000 to 5,000 turbines per year minimum,” said Scott, who plans to begin inspections later this year.

Scott is also trying to introduce a drone education curriculum, created by Action Drones, at middle and high schools across the state. “The overall goal is to encourage students to think about possible career paths,” he said. “Drones have a lot to offer.”

For more information, visit upstateaerial.com.

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