Drones Take Washington Businesses to New Heights

The possibilities for drone use are seemingly endless.

by Vicki Hillhouse, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash. / July 3, 2017

(TNS) -- No one you’re going to read about here is a spy.

That detail must be cleared up first, because it’s typically the first question these people are asked.

Derrik Westoby considers it an opportunity to educate when people see him flying his drone.

“What is that? You doing surveillance? Who are you spying on?”

The more he can share about what he can do with the technology — by the way, peeking into windows is by far one of the hardest tasks, and one that someone who went through the trouble of getting a license is not likely to risk it for — the better liaison he can be for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems flying community.

“Chances are, everybody I come across with my drone is seeing it for the first time,” Westoby said. “It’s spreading the message that there are people being responsible with them.”

The use for the technology has integrated mightily since Westoby began learning how to navigate and build the machines on his own, four or so years ago.

He’s a testament to that. Seven months ago, PBS Engineering and Environmental, an engineering and environmental firm that had been contracting with him to capture data from his aerial camera for use in mapping and data collection, brought him on as a full-time employee and then created an entire department around the work.

It was a bold move, PBS being one of the first design companies in the nation to have an Unmanned Aerial Services Division.

It was also a huge stretch from where Westoby started. After service in the military, the Bend native was working as an EMT for Milton-Freewater Rural Fire and took up an interest in drone technology. He spent $40 on his first consumer-grade product and started playing with it.

His passion grew as he imagined from the front lines of firefighting how the technology could be used to help with major forest fires — a use that’s not near practical yet.

In the meantime, he learned to fly in the open fields of the rural community and learned to build his own aircraft.

Westoby now serves as the Walla Walla-based program lead for the division in PBS’ 10 regional offices, training other pilots for the company. Pilots like him, he said, “got over the hump where people acknowledge there is an application. There is a use in a lot of professions for the technology.”

New perspectives

From local companies to the U.S. military, to entertainer Lady Gaga lighting the night sky with her Super Bowl halftime performance, to Amazon and its package-delivery initiative, more businesses are appreciating the capabilities and value of the highflying devices.

Jeremy Gonzalez, a marketing entrepreneur whose Spark Creative utilizes drone photography and videography for content creation, was touting the technology before anyone would actually listen.

So he showed them instead.

Gonzalez, who considers himself “TransCascadian” for his work in both Eastern and Western Washington, mastered flying in Seattle’s Gas Works Park. With footage from his DJI drone he launched the Facebook page “ABOVE Seattle,” showcasing the dreamy skyline of the bustling city.

The videos are all his creation, with no financial backing. With more than 13,000 page followers, one of his last videos has garnered around 190,000 views and more than 3,000 shares.

“When that happens, people start emailing me,” he said over coffee on downtown Walla Walla’s Main Street. “‘Hey, do you work with businesses?’”

Although the drone portion of his business accounts for only about 10 percent of his income, it’s an additional service to the production and marketing.

“Five or six years ago, to get the quality of shots I have now I would have had to hire a helicopter,” he said.

In Walla Walla, Gonzalez acquired the already established “Our Town Walla Walla” Facebook page and converted it to “Discover Walla Walla,” a showcase of the city’s quirky charm and serene beauty.

His video work has garnered attention not only from clients, but also from national media firms in need of footage. He’s sold pieces to someone producing programming for CNN and for a “48 Hours” segment on CBS.

“When I started ABOVE Seattle, if I would have gone to a company for sponsorship and asked for $1,000 a month to do it, no one would have given it to me,” he said. “Now they can see what I built from scratch, and they contact me.”

The work has changed the way he views the world around him.

“I shot videos and a little photography for a long time, but until I started flying I’d never framed the world like I frame it now,” he said.

The flying is just one component, he said. The camera work is where his own vision comes in. That’s part of a creative economy that’s independent to each person. Others now coming on board with the technology in marketing are already behind the mark in terms of the experience he’s gained. And that’s a huge difference when it comes to making clients comfortable with the ideas and the work.

“You’ve got to keep on upping the shot quality. You’ve got to keep on upping the ideas,” he said. “Which shots — or series of them — tell the story?”

This is an area local real estate firms have explored a bit through contract work. But now, one is making it an internal part of its operations as a competitive service for its clients.

Coldwell Banker First Realtors Marketing Coordinator Stephanie DeLay is working toward her pilot’s license for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, as well.

The office has invested in its own DJI drone. The vision is to use it to showcase high-end and large-acreage properties to potential buyers.

“We’re trying to capture the whole setting. Properties that have a few acres, so we can show the buyers how they’re arranged,” DeLay said.

“Buyers are wanting more and more information. You can offer photos, 3-D tours. It’s an information-hungry group.”

It also helps for out-of-towners to get the most in-depth information before making a trip here to potentially buy.

The drone technology was demonstrated last year in waves of green wheat in Dayton, and is being utilized in precision agriculture and viticulture at Walla Walla Community College.

But while it moves forward in some ways, in other circles it remains as challenging as ever to use.

Potential turbulence

Westoby, one of the most well-versed pilots in terms of understanding permitting, air space regulations and compliance, has on numerous occasions been told he can’t use air space above private or even public property, even though the FAA is the only regulatory body governing air.

Just last week Westoby shot overview footage of the Walla Walla Regional Airport. Although he had an active FAA airspace waiver for the area, it took nearly four months to get approval to fly there. He said he coordinated with air traffic control before, during and after the flight. Some traffic was rerouted during his flight. But the footage was incredible.

Separate from getting clearances, the technology itself is tricky.

“There’s a lot of ways for stuff to go wrong,” Westoby said.

A speck of dust in an airspeed sensor can throw off the machine; if it’s supposed to be moving at 30 mph, it may go 15. Depending on the settings, it can correct itself by shutting off or have an array of other responses.

“The drones think of the world as a basketball. There’s nothing on it. It’s just a sphere,” Westoby said.

At PBS, the drones are used to create survey-controlled orthomosaics (geo-referenced aerial maps for planimetrics — measuring a surface by tracing its boundaries), supplementing traditional topographic survey methods.

With software by Skyward, the flight paths are planned in advance. The data collected can be used to generate 3-D surface meshes, contour lines and 3-D models, without making another field visit.

Other applications include virtual inspections and site visits; easier visual assessments of hard-to-access areas; risk reduction to field staff; and increased efficiencies in time and costs.

PBS expects to extend the applications to more commercial and public clients to support engineering, environmental and survey services, it said.

“We’re excited to offer tis technology to clients in all sectors — not just municipal surveys,” said PBS Principal Engineer Mark Leece, in a prepared statement. “The sky is literally the limit.”

©2017 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.