Brock Wilkerson is on the ground floor of a high-flying business that he feels is bound for even greater heights.
In that regard the Southern Illinois native is not unlike some of the largest companies in the country, who are chasing after the commercial drone industry, which he hopes really takes flight once federal regulators figure out a rule playbook about a year from now.
Wilkerson’s McLeansboro-based company, Insight Aerial Productions, recently added use of an unmanned aerial vehicle to take bird’s-eye video of ground-level scenes for real estate customers and others. Previously used only fixed-wing aircraft for the work. The dual approach is providing his viewers a new perspective.
“It’s allowing us to see things in a way that we could never see before. If we need to shoot from an airplane for higher shots, we’ve got access to an airplane. If we need to be down lower to get shots that you can’t get with a ladder or dolly, or some type of very expensive rigging, then we use the unmanned aircraft,” he said.
Technically, he said, there are no formal restrictions for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, but hobbyists and others in the civilian aviation side have agreed to keep such flights under 400 feet and within line of sight at the advice of the Federal Aviation Administration until formal measures are recommended by the FAA.
“That will keep everybody safely separated until Congress writes the rules,” Wilkerson said. “Most everything you want to do, you can do below 400 feet; we manage to do a lot of what we want to do at 100 or 150 feet.”
The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 has set a deadline of Sept. 30, 2015, for the agency to establish regulations.
On its website the FAA goes into lofty detail on its goals to integrate small unmanned air vehicles into the National Air Space.
The website says in part:
“Due to the intense public demand, the FAA continues efforts to develop the regulatory framework for safely integrating small UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) into routine National Air Space operations. This will primarily be accomplished by a rule that is scheduled to be released for public comment later this year.
“The FAA is also working to leverage authority granted under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 to establish an interim policy that bridges the gap between the current state and NAS operations as they will be once the small UAS rule is finalized.”
Section 333, Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems, grants the FAA only limited statutory flexibility. Section 333 authorizes the FAA to determine if certain unmanned aircraft systems create a hazard to users of the national airspace system or the public or pose a threat to national security; and whether a certificate of waiver or authorization is required for the operation of unmanned aircraft systems.
An interim policy would provide a framework for authorizing safe civil operations in the NAS, including operations for air commerce.
“This framework will provide operators who wish to pursue safe and legal entry into the NAS a competitive advantage in the small UAS marketplace, thus discouraging illegal operations and improving safety. It is anticipated that this activity will result in significant economic benefits,” the FAA says.
The FAA administrator has identified as a high priority project the need to address demand for civil operation of small UAS for commercial purposes.
Following general aviation rules more often than not protects the serious unmanned aerial vehicle user, Wilkerson said, but the news has been filled with recent stories of people who weren’t following safety protocols and crashed units into buildings or the ground.
“Being a pilot I understand airspace and airspace rules. If you take those rules and apply them to RC (remote control) aircraft, no one should ever have any problem,” he said.
For his work, which normally involves such things as a promotional video or property documentation, he will first approach the local airport, make plans and follow rules and protocols making safety the first priority.
“Even after a great deal of planning we sometimes decide not to fly if we are not sure about something,” he said.
Wilkerson uses equipment manufactured by several different companies then customizes it to suit his particular needs.
“If demand continues to increase and some clear rules of operation are established, we plan to grow into larger, more sophisticated equipment that will increase our capabilities,” he said.
Wilkerson’s been a pilot since 2004 and
has through the years owned airplanes, although none at the moment. He is a
native of McLeansboro in Hamilton
County and still lives there. His 18-year-old son, Madison, is the technical whiz behind the UAV effort, he said.
“When I started looking into this in the middle to late part of last year, I found it is value-justified. In the real estate world, a broker wants to get an edge on a piece of property. People want to see it as much as they can before they ever go visit it,” Wilkerson said.
As a broker for BARBERMurphy Group, one of the region’s largest commercial real estate property firms, he has done several video projects to help advertise the company’s listings, including his own. Insight, however, is his own company and he has done video projects for other firms, including shopping mall properties for a client in Oregon.
He thinks the majority of aerial video will one day be done using unmanned aerial vehicles of some sort.
“Real estate is all about detail and the surroundings. In commercial real estate we try to get the vantage point of what is surrounding the property for commerce, whether it be a retail property or an industrial property. What are the roads? What is the infrastructure? All those things are pertinent to commercial property.”
He added: “It is really phenomenal what you can learn and what you can see and the opinions and perspectives you can develop after seeing a film of what we do. We’re in a world now where everybody wants the visual perspective of things. A photo is worth a thousand words, but a video is ... unspeakable.”
Wilkerson’s colleague at BARBERMurphy, company principal Paul Murphy, agrees with that assessment.
“It’s much easier for our clients. Everything’s so web-based now. Instead of driving out to a scene they can get on the computer and see what it’s all about,” Murphy said.
He pointed out that many home and businesses are surrounded by woods or off remote roads and not clearly visible on a drive-by.
“A plat map may not show if a creek runs through it. An aerial picture would,” Murphy said.
Commercial applications for UAVs may be unlimited, given that companies like Amazon are publicly crusading for the ability to someday be able to deliver door-to-door, via drones. But the specifics will have to wait for the rulemaking and for various legal issues being worked out.
Wilkerson said he had one client, a bank, that wanted him to film a construction project to make sure that bank loans were tracking with progress on the construction. Both the lender and contractor agreed to the process and both were happy with the results, he said.
He said he is considering buying an infrared, thermal camera that would be good for analyzing air flow from buildings for efficiency purposes.
“We can go up beside any (tall) building or hotel, fly the entire side of that building, and show on a report if there are any air leaks, where they are, the temperature of the air leaks, the volume of the air coming out of the leaks — and for a relatively inexpensive fee compared to the financial loss incurred from such leaks,” he said.
There are also applications for search and rescue, grain elevators with hot bearing concerns and more.
“I could go on and on,” he said.
While he’s one of the few in his business at the moment, others are going to get behind the movement, he said.
“It’s inexpensive, it’s not something that’s going to take a pilot’s license, a full degree or thousands of hours of training to do. Some people can pick it up and do it from the beginning,” Wilkerson said.