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Local drone company takes off; SkyClad benefitting from August FAA ruling on pilots
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Credit: Aaron Richardson, Charlottesville Tomorrow
SkyClad Aerial's Phantom IV drone and a picture it took of the UVA Rotunda
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Aaron Richardson | Saturday, February 11, 2017 at 9:49 p.m.

Three years ago, Matteus Frankovich decided to take his interest in an emerging technology and see if he could get a foothold in a brand-new business sector.

He founded SkyClad AP, which uses drone-mounted cameras to shoot promotional videos, real estate listings and weddings.

Until August, Frankovich operated his business under a Federal Aviation Administration Section 333 exemption, a rule that allowed commercial operation of drones in national airspace but required that they be operated by a licensed pilot.

At the end of August, the FAA issued a new ruling allowing non-pilots to obtain licenses to fly drones commercially. Frankovich passed the test and, with license in hand, is looking to expand his business.

The industry as a whole has snowballed since the change, said Darren Goodbar, director of aerial services for Draper Aden Associates and an instructor of unmanned aerial vehicle classes at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Under the umbrella of its workforce development curriculum, PVCC offers instruction on flying drones, the technology behind them, safety standards and a class designed specifically to help new pilots earn a commercial license.

“It has enabled a lot of people, really, to operate legally commercially,” Goodbar said of the August rule change. “The number of operators has exploded since then … because it does not require experience in a physical aircraft, just general knowledge.”

With partner Kevin Coles, a GIS specialist, and photographer Will Kerner on board, Frankovich said he hopes to use high-quality drone footage to do site monitoring for construction projects and create high-resolution 3-D maps of land parcels, in addition to videos and photos for marketers.

“There is the thrill of drones, the excitement of flying drones, and we love that — that is kind of what sparked our initial interest in this,” Frankovich said. “What we are trying to do is kind of like a clear, efficient path for these local markets to gather data and use it to — whatever they are doing — do it more efficiently.”

SkyClad recently purchased a new drone, a DJI Phantom IV Pro, which packs a 20-megapixel camera capable of shooting video in 4K resolution at 60 frames per second.

Coupled with software that can stitch the photos into a 3-D map, the company says it can perform build-site monitoring and surveying much faster than workers on foot. Though Google Earth can be rendered in 3-D, its maps are often out-of-date and of a lower resolution.

“If you put up a Google Map image next to the footage that we have shot, it’s day and night,” Kerner said. “It looks like some grainy newspaper photograph next to a super-acute photograph.”

The challenge now, Coles said, is selling the technology.

“Most people have been pretty receptive,” he said. “You always have your critics — that it is Big Brother and that sort of thing — but for what we are using it for … people are very open to it.”

With the new rule making obtaining a license easier, the market for drones and the number of drone-based businesses are growing.

Companies such as Amazon and UPS have invested in the technology, and PVCC offers multiple classes on unmanned aerial vehicles through its workforce development curriculum.

With drones more accessible for commercial uses, companies have begun bringing the technology in-house, Goodbar said.

“It’s a tool in a toolbox,” he said. “If you look at a drone, it is just another tool to get a camera at a higher angle, it’s nothing special … the rapid change we see now is enterprises coming out to get their [commercial licenses]; it is that easy now.”

Frankovich and his team hope they can attract customers with their ability to shoot photos and footage and process them into usable maps, images and videos in-house.

“In less than an hour of airtime, we can gather all the data we need with this tool,” Frankovich said. “We then take it back to another site, process that data within another hour and have an interactive 3-D model that you can scale and zoom in to.”

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