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Drones Lead To New Business Ideas

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Shortly after he became the proud owner of a Phantom drone, Tom Simmons realized he had a cutting-edge new toy, but not necessarily a tool he could use for his business.

“I said, ‘OK, we’re going to go out and take some pictures of our real estate listings,’ ” said Simmons, a broker with Nelson Property Consultants. “After a little research, I discovered technically, according to the FAA, you can’t do that according to the regulations that are in place.”

With his new aircraft temporarily grounded for commercial purposes, Simmons saw what he calls “a heck of a business opportunity.”

About a year ago, he founded Aerial Horizons and became an authorized dealer for a Chinese company, DJI, which makes a growing line of drones for hobby and business uses.

“I’m trying to get ahead of the curve and learning,” Simmons said.

He’s not the only one. A growing number of entrepreneurs is wading into the world of drones, with its changing regulatory landscape and vast number of potential business implications.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has its South Dakota office in Rapid City, hears from up to 10 people each week – a number that picked up after Christmas.

“Most people who are inquiring want to operate them legally,” said Steve Hoogerhyde, an aviation safety inspector. “They’re concerned about doing something they shouldn’t, and there’s a process in place for them to go through to operate for commercial purposes.”

Taking flight

Simmons sells the unmanned aerial systems – or drones – from a new office that he shares with MPI Video at 814 N. Western Ave. The price tag ranges from $1,100 to $13,000.

The drones haven’t been flying out the door for a variety of reasons, he said. Potential business users are starting to realize the FAA is cracking down on illegal operators, so many of his sales have been to people who want to use them for agricultural purposes or hobbies.

Other customers also buy online, Simmons added. He includes instruction and servicing to help distinguish his business.

“So many people buy these things online, take them out of the box, charge the battery, take them out and fly it, and it flies away,” he said. “And they don’t understand why.”

Simmons educates customers about how to operate the drones and can help repair or replace them when they crash – “which unfortunately happens more than most of us would like to admit.”

He still doesn’t use drones to photograph real estate listings because that would be using them commercially, and he hasn’t yet received an exemption from the FAA. To receive that requires a sport pilot certificate earned through a ground school and flight time.

“Over the last few months, I’ve been telling all my customers they need to go to the FAA’s website and read the rules and regulations,” he said. “And if they’re going to be using these for commercial purposes, they need to go through the process.”

Click Rain is going through the same process.

The marketing firm bought its first drone earlier this year after hearing interest from clients.

“We bit the bullet, went out and bought the latest and greatest one we could find after we sold our initial project,” partner Eric Ellefson said.

by Jodi Schwan

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