Pa. man turns drone hobby into business venture
JESSUP, Pa. — From Lee Deangelis’ perspective, “once you get 100 feet up, everything looks better.”
A full-time IT professional at the University of Scranton and self-described amateur filmmaker, Deangelis bought his first drone four years ago as the burgeoning technology began to take off among hobbyists. He hoped to experiment with new aerial perspectives and got the chance when Scranton Cooperage caught fire in June 2014, sending plumes of black smoke into the air above his Jessup, Lackawanna County, home.
“It was right outside my door, so I just happened to send the drone up and got some pictures,” Deangelis said. “And that’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
In the years since, Deangelis has gone from drone enthusiast to chief executive officer of his own drone-photography company, Access Aerial, an LLC he originally founded with a partner but now runs independently from his home. Using high-tech drones, including the $5,000-plus DJI Inspire 2, he can shoot 4K video and 20 megapixel photos for clients that range from Realtors and construction firms to gas companies and newspapers, including The Times-Tribune.
“People used to hire helicopters for $2,000 a day,” Deangelis said. “Now you can hire us, and for a fraction of that cost we can get you the exact same shot, sometimes even better.”
Applications: The commercial applications for drones are many and include more than just basic photography and video services. For example, Access Aerial produces orthomosaic maps — true-to-scale maps composed of hundreds of stitched-together aerial images — that allow construction companies and developers to track their projects’ progress. It can even produce 3D models, and Deangelis said thermal imaging is on the horizon.
“Just about every industry has a use for drones whether they know it or not,” Deangelis said. “It can change the way people work.”
To fly drones commercially, however, companies must comply with numerous regulations and restrictions. The Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial drone operators to complete a “Part 107” process — which Deangelis compared to “ground school” — that includes testing to assure drone pilots understand things like airspace, weather patterns and sectional maps. Commercial operators must retest every two years and carry insurance that can cost several thousand dollars annually.
FAA regulations and other barriers have kept some drone enthusiasts from breaking into the business side of the industry, but regulations have loosened over the years as drone technology became more mainstream. That’s translated to more drone-based companies and more competition for early industry players.
Potential: Business Consultant Keith Yurgosky of the University of Scranton’s Small Business Development Center said several people have come in seeking advice on how to turn their drone hobbies into a business, “because people are always looking for a side income.”
Amazon’s 2013 announcement that it planned to introduce drone package delivery “opened people’s eyes” to the potential of the technology, Yurgosky said, noting in a general sense that the businesses that endure are generally the ones that offer the best product.
“The guy down the street now, his kid has the drone that I was using,” Deangelis said. “To separate ourselves we needed to have a higher-end product and perception is reality. If you show up on a job site with a drone that the guy’s son has, he’s just going to say ‘why am I not hiring my son.’”
On average, Deangelis estimates that Access Aerial services between 20 to 30 clients a year, some big and some small. His aerial photography packages start at about $150 and increase in price based on the scope of the project. Certain projects have gone on for years, with some of those larger undertakings creeping into the $15,000-plus price range.
“The barrier to entry has dropped, but I believe the quality of our work speaks for itself,” Deangelis said. “At the end of the day, business is about client relationships. We’ve worked with a lot of clients over the years now. They come back to us when they need stuff and word of mouth spreads, and business grows.”
For more information on Access Aerial and its portfolio, visit http://accessaerial.com/ or call 888-376-7567.