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S.F. Startup Lumoid Teaches Drone Pilots How to Fly

The California-based company seeks to capitalize on the emerging market by charging drone pilots $5 per lesson and offering drones to rent.

by Benny Evangelista, San Francisco Chronicle / November 2, 2015

(TNS) -- Student pilot Bill Rollinson kept a steady gaze toward the skies, gently thumbing the joysticks of his drone’s remote control.

“Why don’t you try rotating it, bring the red lights facing us,” said flight instructor Brian Burdett, standing at his side. “It’s going to be the left stick. Now hit forward on the right stick ... Bring it down slowly ... You want me to land it for you?”

“I can land it,” Rollinson said confidently.

And with that, he executed a perfect touchdown.

Rollinson was one of six students in a drone flying workshop staged by , a San Francisco startup that rents tech gadgets like digital cameras, smartwatches and fitness trackers.

Lumoid is renting more drones these days as overall interest in the flying gadgets soars. The Consumer Electronics Association forecasts that drones will generate nearly $300 million by 2018, up from $84 million last year.

And a top Federal Aviation Administration official recently said the agency fears there will be 1 million drones sold during the holiday season.

Their popularity has sparked a hot national debate about drones threatening the safety of airplanes. Pilots are reporting more than 100 drone close calls or sightings per month, even though FAA rules prohibits drones from flying above 400 feet or within 5 miles of an airport.

Last month, the FAA announced plans to register all recreational drones. An FAA task force, which includes Google, Amazon and Walmart, is tasked with writing those regulations by Nov. 20 to cover recreational drones like the ones rented by Lumoid.

Because so many customers asked for lessons, Lumoid last week started offering beginner workshops for people interested in drones that can be used to shoot overhead photos or video, or to fly for fun. The session included a 15-minute overview inside the company’s Potrero Hill office and about an hour’s worth of flight time at a nearby softball field.

The first session filled up within minutes after it was posted online. For now, Lumoid is charging $5 per session and limits each to eight participants. The company, which has built its business plan on the mantra of “try before you buy,” hopes customers will want to come back and rent or buy a drone.

For the workshop, participants flew a DJI Phantom 2 equipped with a GoPro Hero 4 camera, a package that costs about $900 to buy. Lumoid rents similar drones for $36 to $65 a day.

Registering drones

Lumoid said it plans to register all the drones in its rental fleet, and CEO Aarthi Ramamurthy wants to make sure customers know the implications of flying.

“You need to make sure you’re aware of what you’re doing because people can get hurt and you can get hurt,” she said. “Near airports people are like, ‘I want to check out how planes are taking off.’ No, it’s a really dumb idea. Don’t do things like that.”

Yash Patel, Lumoid’s lead drone operator, hopes to “educate people on how easy it is to fly a drone” while “trying to get rid of that social stigma that drones are bad.”

“We don’t want people to be scared of them,” Patel said. “It’s another form of photography.”

On a late afternoon, Patel and Burdett, who leads Lumoid audio operations, instructed six students on the joy of flying drones over a mostly empty Jackson Playground. That included how to properly install the four propellers, work the joysticks and discern which way the drone is facing.

Early lessons

Patel cautioned the group to start slowly. “We don’t want to be going above tree level, so keep things kind of low, maybe about 8 feet max for now,” he said. “And if you get better control, you can take it up a little higher.”

And, he added, “don’t get too close to people. They get kind of get scared.”

Hwan Choi, 34, got the hang of flying immediately, although he isn’t a novice — he owns a small drone.

“My excuse to my wife originally when I got it was I thought we had a wasp nest on our roof,” Choi said. “So I was trying to get some pictures from above. I told her after I bought it. But she was OK with it because it was only $40.”

But that small drone can’t handle the outdoor winds and had a low-resolution camera. So as he darted the Phantom 2 high over center field, Choi’s eyes lit up like a kid’s in a toy store when asked if he planned to buy a better drone.

“I’m really considering it for Christmas,” he said.

Steven Ballinger said that as a photographer, he is interested in learning about drones to shoot video, although he would rent rather than buy.

“I’m not just going to get a drone to have it and play with it,” he said. “If I can use it for my photography, then I would.”

Student pilot Rollinson signed up for the lesson because he was curious about what kind of photos a drone can take while he surfs.

“Now I do want one, now I’m hooked,” he said after landing softly on the infield grass. Still, he said with a laugh, “I don’t know, I have to ask my wife.”

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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