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Droning on

Florida companies, entrepreneurs and schools are capitalizing on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Skyrocketing Numbers

Between 2016 and 2017, the number of drones registered with the FAA more than doubled to about 110,000, according to DroneDeploy, a commercial drone software company based in San Francisco. It predicts there will be more than 600,000 registered drones by 2022.

Top Industries for Drone Use

More than a third of large U.S. construction and engineering firms use drones, according to a recent survey by Skyward, a drone operations and management company based in Portland, Ore. Percent of companies in each industry that use drones:

Industry — Drone Use

Construction/engineering — 35%
Government — 24
Transportation/warehousing — 13
Insurance — 12
Education — 11
Technology — 11
Manufacturing — 6

Note: Applies to companies with more than 50 million in annual revenue.

Major Market Segments

Goldman Sachs predicts the market for drones will soon grow to $100 billion.

Sector — Estimated market value (2020)

Military — $70 billion
Consumers — 17 billion
Businesses/civil governments — 13 billion


The U.S. drone industry is expected to create 100,000 jobs from 2015 to 2025, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a robotics trade group. Florida ranks fourth for projected drone-related job growth, behind California, Washington and Texas.

Coastal Defense

The U.S. Navy is looking to the day when robotic, unmanned boats will launch aerial and submarine drones for coastal defense.

In May, the Navy awarded a $1.25-million contract to Florida Atlantic University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science. During the next five years, FAU researchers will help the Navy develop an unmanned ocean platform to support a range of underwater vehicles and aerial drones at sea.

An autonomous mothership for drones could offer key advantages over the Navy’s other seaborne platforms, including lower operational and maintenance costs, near-constant surveillance and data collection, and reduced safety risks. “It avoids putting sailors in harm’s way,” says Manhar Dhanak, an FAU engineering professor and director of the FAU SeaTech Institute for Ocean and Systems Engineering.

The researchers plan to create software to conduct mapping. Improved sensors will help the vehicles avoid collisions. The project also will provide training and education for graduate and undergraduate students in ocean engineering.

“There are significant challenges in navigating an unmanned vehicle,” Dhanak says. “You have to devise systems for perception so that the vehicle can see and make decisions. It’s a bit like the driverless car,” he adds. “In fact, we borrow some of the same technology.”

Advanced Degrees

In 2011, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach became one of the first in the U.S. to offer a bachelor’s degree in unmanned aircraft systems. “We knew there was going to be growth because autonomy is the wave of the future,” says John Robbins, the school’s unmanned aircraft systems program coordinator and an associate professor in aeronautical science. Students learn how to fly and program drones and about data collection and image analysis, he says. Embry-Riddle also offers a number of master’s degrees and specializations focused on drone operations and engineering. Robbins says students “come from all sorts of backgrounds” and typically start out doing contract work with the Department of Defense before landing jobs in the private sector. The drone industry “is good and showing consistent growth,” he says.

Pilots License

Becoming a commercial drone pilot isn’t expensive or difficult. The FAA’s commercial drone licensing program requires operators to pass a multiple-choice test and pay $150. As of July, there were more than 95,000 FAA-certified drone pilots in the U.S.

Experts say job opportunities for commercial drone pilots are growing. Pay can range up to $250 an hour or more, depending on the work, location and skill level required.


Having already spread beyond their military origins to recreational use, drones are now being put to work by businesses. That can involve risk that insurers are willing to cover.

Last year, Unmanned Vehicle Insurance launched an online portal where commercial drone operators can buy up to $5 million in liability insurance backed by Lloyds of London. The insurance covers damage to a policyholder’s drone and payload while in flight as well as damage to someone else’s property in the event of an accident. Annual premiums range from $510 for $1 million of insurance to $900 for $5 million of insurance.

“Drones can cost as little as $2,000, but their payloads” — especially cameras and video equipment — “are very expensive,” says Gary Reshefsky, president of Unmanned Vehicle Insurance, a Boca Raton-based division of Century Programs.

So far, UVI’s claims volume has been low, he says. While businesses today use drones largely for aerial photography and surveying, he anticipates more commercial drone applications to come.

“Fire departments are using drones to monitor brush fires and those types of things,” he says. “In agricultural areas, drone technology is becoming more affordable.”

Farmers already use drones to take inventory of crops and spot failing plants early. In the not-too-distant future, he says, drones will be used to spray pesticides, fertilizer and water on crops.


Drone training programs have proliferated in Florida since the FAA legalized commercial drone operations two years ago.

At St. Petersburg College, students can now take a four-week, 10-hour course to prepare for the FAA’s drone pilot test. So far, more than 250 students have taken the prep course, which costs $340. Fred Tucker, the college’s drone program coordinator, says most students are entrepreneurs looking to start a drone services business or professionals wanting to add drone-flying skills to their resume.

“We’ve had people come through who want to do this as a second or third career,” Tucker says. “We’ve had pilots who don’t fly aircraft anymore, but they still want to stick with aviation, so they’ve converted to being drone pilots. We’ve also had people who are incorporating it into their existing businesses.”

St. Petersburg College also offers a drone-related course on mapping technology and a course for police and fire departments that see a use for drones in their operations. This month, the college will add a course on editing and producing video shot with drone cameras.

Commercial Rules

Until fairly recently, most companies were not allowed by law to fly drones commercially in the U.S. That changed two years ago, when the Federal Aviation Administration issued rules clearing the way for drones to be used for business purposes. Companies can now fly drones weighing less than 55 pounds, within eyesight of an FAA-certified remote pilot, at a maximum altitude of 400 feet.

Drones at Work

Some industries where drone pilots are finding work:

Real Estate

One of the more common uses for drones is in real estate marketing. Aerial photos can help a listing stand out and increase interest from potential buyers.

“Consumers have very short attention spans nowadays. They start their search on the internet and see a lot of properties in a short amount of time. You have to get their attention,” says Brian Balduf, CEO of Chicago-based marketing firm VHT Studios, which hires drone pilots to shoot listings for Realtors nationwide; Florida is its third-largest market.

“Drones add a dramatic perspective, something new, something different,” he says. “Any home where the property itself is a major feature — if you’re backed up to a golf course, the ocean, a lake or a park — drones help convey the whole picture.”

Balduf says he sees a day when potential home buyers put on virtualreality goggles to view listings from the perspective of a drone. “As the generation of gamers becomes a generation of home buyers, there’s no reason they won’t be sitting on their Nintendo and saying, ‘I’m going to look at homes now,’ ” he says. “We’re really just at the beginning of seeing the impact.”


Utilities are using drones to search for power lines that have been damaged. After Hurricane Irma last year, FPL conducted more than 1,300 drone fl ights in South Florida.

“Let’s say the area is fl ooded, and someone can’t get to it safely. We could use a drone to access the area and assess the damage without putting anyone in harm’s way,” says FPL spokeswoman Nina Frick. “We still rely heavily on our linemen, but in situations like a fl ood, we probably would have had to wait until the fl oodwaters receded to safely get to the area.” The utility also uses drones for routine power line inspections.


Using a drone, builders can identify where construction work might be falling behind or keep track of materials. Aerial data from a drone also can be used to create a 3-D map to show the progress of a project to clients.

Recently, Suffolk hired a company to use drones to inspect the build-out of Jade Signature, a 57-story condominium in Sunny Isles Beach. Suffolk’s COO for Florida’s east coast, Joe Fernandez, says drones offer a faster, cheaper and safer way to inspect hardto- reach places. Ordinarily, “we would use a helicopter or a couple of guys with radios walking all over the site,” he says. “Now, one drone operator can capture information relatively fast, within five or 10 minutes, and give it to the rest of the team.”

“They provide a whole bunch of new data that’s going to allow us to build smarter,” says Lance Dengerud, Suffolk’s Miami smart lab director and a senior project manager.

Drones as a Service

For people looking for a secondary or even primary source of income, owning a drone could be the start of a freelance business specializing in aerial event photography or residential roof inspections (to name only a couple of examples).

In 2016, Keith Parsons, 57, became a drone pilot after working for nearly 30 years in construction.

“Over the years, my back deteriorated, so I was kind of forced to either have multiple surgeries or get out of the business. I decided to get out,” he says.

Parsons, who lives in St. Petersburg, owns a drone services company called Focus 360. He makes about $5,000 a month on average. His clients include TV news stations, sporting events producers, utilities and cell tower operators. Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) hired him to survey damage from Hurricane Irma in South Florida. “For three weeks of work, I made about $7,000,” he says. “It’s a growing industry, and it’s only going to get bigger.”

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