Popularity of drones rises in Tampa Bay area

Look up in the air anywhere in the Tampa Bay area. What are you seeing? Birds? Planes? Blimps? Yes, yes, yes, and also, drones -- or unmanned aircraft systems, to give the technical name. Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles are just a few of the common terms used to describe robotic, remote-controlled multi-functional vehicles that operate somewhat like small helicopters. 

The Austrians were the first to use a primitive type of aerial drone in 1849, but in more recent decades, technology has gotten smaller, less expensive, more reliable and far more user friendly. Later adopted by the military and law enforcement for defense and security purposes, drones recently entered the private market. For less than $1,000, shoppers can buy a variety of drones, including a DJI Phantom at the nearest hobby shop or electronic store.

While widely publicized Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) laws have recently been enacted, thousands of hobbyists, both novice and well-seasoned, are making use of this innovative and fun technology in the Tampa Bay area and throughout the rest of the United States. Meanwhile, commercial firms and public safety organizations in the Tampa area have made use of unmanned aircraft system technology for a multitude of practical tasks, including aerial photography, surveying and even utilization by first responders for aiding rescues. 

Tampa businesses embrace drone technology 

Ryan English is a former firefighter, paramedic and Coast Guard member with law enforcement training. He is also the co-founder and president of Flymotion Unmanned Systems, a Tampa drone firm that provides commercial unmanned aerial systems services for a wide array of uses, including public safety, oil and gas inspections, agricultural needs, security and aerial media purposes. “The unmanned aerial vehicle industry is diverse,” he says. “It is proving to be cost effective, and people want to save money.” 

The veteran-owned small business, founded in 2014, came along just as the drone industry began soaring to new heights. “I’m an entrepreneur and come from a public safety and military background,” says English. “We want people to understand the benefits of drone technology,” he remarks. “Unmanned technology can help many industries save money and save human life.” He says the industry has seen “explosive” growth in the last 24 to 36 months, and the activity at his company has reflected this. “We’re doing a lot of product development, consulting, safety mitigation and FAA training.” 

While Flymotion utilizes drone technology for public safety and related purposes, there is a major media division within the company that is suited specifically for media photography needs. “We’ve done work for HBO, the Outback Bowl, Lowry Park Zoo,” English says, reeling off just some of the many high-profile clients for whom his young company has already served. “It’s a multibillion dollar industry.” 

Not just anyone with a drone can legally tap into the cash that flows into this new industry. “We have an FAA 333 exemption,” he explains. The license, designed for commercial purposes, requires fliers have a sport pilot’s license and registered aircraft. While the government continues sorting out how to enact and enforce laws to better govern a quickly growing field of aeronautics, English has taken on the personal mission of teaching the next generation about the tiny aircraft so vital to his fledgling business. “We’re highly involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] teaching and go to schools from the elementary level up through high school to teach students about unmanned system technology,” English says. 

Another growing Tampa drone firm called Habana Avenue is also swooping in on the action. Established in 2004, Habana Avenue, named for one of Tampa’s most highly recognizable streets, is a content marketing and development production company. The firm, founded by Steven J. Levy, embraces unmanned aircraft systems as a vital piece of equipment in keeping up with the rapid technological evolution in media. 

“Drones were just another toolset to add to our capabilities,” says Levy, who earned a degree in public relations and spent many years in film and at one point becoming a director, says drones are an important part of the many things his company does, especially in the photography standpoint. “We produce commercials, online content, [arrange] live events and corporate meetings, TV and film, websites, and inbound marketing.” As for the company’s adaptations on the drone side, Levy suggests it was a virtual no-brainer for the firm. “We saw it as an emerging space and wanted to be a first-mover.” 

Tampa drone expert says sky is limit with technology 

Normalization of drone technology, from a novel concept just a few years ago to a rapidly expanding, now-common technology illustrates why people like George Papabeis of Tampa Hackerspace stay busy. He recently delivered a two-hour seminar, aptly titled “Drones, Drones, Drones!,” at the John F. Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa and teaches several drone classes in Tampa on a regular basis.

“There are so many ways to use unmanned aircraft systems,” he notes. “First responders can use drones to look over tree lines, ridge lines and [for] looking for people in rubble. They can use infrared cameras and 3D scanning technology to create a 3D model of the rubble and see where heat sources are coming from.” But that’s not all. “Multi-rotor craft can be sent out with supplies to people stranded at sea with or even to look for those lost in avalanches.” The agricultural business also benefits from drone technology. “They can be used in agriculture for spraying and taking measurements. The systems can be equipped with a camera for determining where water isn’t reaching during irrigation.” 

Certainly, it’s not all business when it comes to drones. “There are even drone races!” Papabeis exclaims. “People are really, really into this and are built to go as fast as 80 miles per hour. That’s pretty quick!” He says drone fly-ins are a big part of the growing industry, and many remote control clubs have events where fliers can show off their equipment. 

Fun and games aside, Papabeis warns that drone users need to heed the recommended safety precautions. “Propellers will lacerate you, [lithium] batteries will catch on fire -- and it’s not a fire you can put out with water,” he says. “I teach people not to fly over crowds. If one of these props stops rotating, it will fall like a rock -- and if a craft comes down in a stadium, that’s not cool.” He even witnessed irresponsible drone activity at the recent Gasparilla parade in Tampa. “I saw three drones flying over the ships, and I told the [drone] operators ‘that’s not cool.’ This is the kind of stuff that gets us in trouble.” 

He says complying with the rules is easy, but that legality is still a largely gray area when it comes to drone use. “The FAA hasn’t really put in regulations, only guidelines. The National Transportation Safety Board has many layers of ‘don’t do that.’” Papabeis, a public affairs specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and a member of the Academy of Modeling Aeronautics says registering private drones with the FAA is simple and inexpensive. “You just go online, pay $5, and you’re registered for three years with an FAA number and your phone number right on the craft. That keeps me really responsible,” he says.

“Hillsborough County is at the forefront of helping UAV [unmanned aircraft vehicle] operators get clearance,” he remarks, pointing to a case where an eloquently worded letter of purpose and a few phone calls to Peter O. Knight Airport, the Tampa Police Department and the City of Tampa helped him gain legal clearance to fly his craft over Curtis Hixon Park for non-commercial purposes. “As long as you’re respectful and don’t mouth off to people, you’ll be OK,” he assures those who want to fly their drones legally. “The people who get into trouble are a small minority,” he adds. “Don’t fly and giggle, and don’t do weird stuff.” 

Papabeis teaches classes at Tampa Hackerspace that entail everything from unmanned aircraft systems design to drone safety. “I’m very safety conscious,” he says. “What we do for safety [classes] is help people understand the aircraft and how to avoid damaging their craft and property.”

While rules may dictate the aeronautical boundaries for Papabeis and other drone users, he and his fellow fliers are inclined to think outside the box when it comes to where unmanned aircraft technology is going. Papabeis, who has been flying for about seven years, has seen the industry evolve about as rapidly as the imagination can allow. “I have young guys from USF [University of South Florida] asking me ‘can we do this? Can we do that?’” They even build drones out of everyday household items like towel racks. 

Growing popularity, growing demand

Tom McMahon, VP of advocacy and public affairs for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), says his organization tracks drone usage in commercial industries.

"Florida is one of the leading states in the nation for UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operations. At the end of 2015, more than 200 Florida businesses had received approval from the FAA to fly commercially,” he says.

According to a 2013 AUVSI study, the unmanned aircraft industry could create more than 100,000 new jobs in the United States and $82 billion impact during the first 10 years of implementing drones and other unmanned aircraft systems in the nation’s airspace.

“In Florida alone, the study projects that in the first decade after integration, the UAS industry would create over 4,800 jobs and $3.8 billion in economic impact," McMahon adds. 

According to polls conducted by Saint Leo University in Pasco County late last year, 38 percent of Floridians are very or somewhat interested in owning a drone, with 36 percent of those respondents wanting to buy a drone so they could see their property from various heights, and 73.3 percent wishing to enjoy the hobby as they would in partaking with advanced model airplanes.

Startlingly, 14.4 percent of those wishing to take up drones as a hobby admitted to interest in the aerial technology to observe on their neighbors and that is just one of many reasons 71 percent of Floridians in the poll are concerned about drone use. Of those worried about drones, 62 percent cited personal privacy issues, 52.7 percent expressed concern about dangerous interference with planes, 61 percent feared weaponized domestic drones, and 51.6 percent were worried about government spying on private citizens. 

Does growing demand and increasing ingenuity in the field of unmanned aircraft systems mean Papabeis sees drones delivering packages for companies like Amazon, which recently expanded in the Tampa Bay Area? “I don’t know,” he remarks. “There are too many variables.”

He explains micro air currents near buildings in places like downtown Tampa make drone delivery infeasible in dense urban areas. And what happens if the technology crashes? Where will it land? What happens to the package? These are all questions that Papabeis himself says must be answered before lofty technological endeavors such as drone delivery can take off. “The only place I can see [drone delivery] working is in the country, where a drone may deliver packages from a van parked on the road to a house at the end of a very long driveway.” 

Still, Papabeis is excited about the number of people who use the technology for recreation and other purposes. He says “probably thousands” of people in the Tampa area use unmanned aircraft systems, with the DJI Phantom one of the most commonly purchased drone products. “I would like to see more people come out to the multi-rotor classes for safety lessons,” he says. “I also want to see more guys and gals with RTFs engage with our community of fellow fliers and learn about their craft.” 
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.